10 Weirdly Wonderful Lemur Species

These charismatic primates are incredibly diverse — and disappearing.

A bamboo lemur with a blade of grass.
A bamboo lemur with a blade of grass.

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The ancestors of lemurs arrived in Madagascar during the Eocene Epoch, possibly by rafting over from Africa on mats of vegetation. The lineage has diversified widely in the 50 million years since, evolving into about 100 species of lemurs that now live across the island.

Like many native species in Madagascar, however, lemurs are now widely endangered by human activities, especially habitat loss. In fact, they are considered the most endangered group of mammals on Earth, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). More than 90% of all lemur species have a threatened status on the IUCN Red List, including 49 listed as endangered and 24 listed as critically endangered.

Here are a few of the most unusual, and endangered, lemurs left on Earth.

1
of 10

Brown mouse lemur

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You're probably thinking there's no way this could be a lemur. It's got to be some sort of little squirrel or even a long-lost cousin of the sugar glider. But no, the brown mouse lemur is a primate and thus a very distant cousin of humans. Found only on Madagascar, the brown mouse lemur is nocturnal (hence the huge eyes) and feeds on insects, fruits, and flowers, including nectar and pollen. The species is among the shortest lived of all primates, making it only to about 6 to 8 years old. While it looks quite different from many other lemur species, it has one thing in common with all lemurs: It is vulnerable to extinction.

2
of 10

Diademed sifaka

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We go from one of the world's smallest to one of the world's largest lemur species. The diademed sifaka is a critically endangered lemur native to a handful of rainforests in eastern Madagascar. The long white fur that encircles its face is what gives it its name. Diademed sifakas live their lives primarily in the forest canopy, rarely coming to the ground. They are made for life up there, with the ability to move as fast as 18 mph (29 kph) through the trees using their strong legs for leaping. There are only 6,000 to 10,000 individuals left of this colorful, unique lemur species.

3
of 10

Aye-aye

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If you're surprised to know the aye-aye is a lemur, you're not alone — scientists debated this until 2008, when the animal was grouped in with other families of species under the lemur umbrella, and the classification may shift again. But currently, we're going with lemur. The aye-aye is famous for an appearance that some people find unsettling. It's the world's largest nocturnal primate species. Because it's active after dark, it uses sound to find food, but not in the way you might think. Climbing along a tree, it taps the trunk and listens until it locates a grub under the bark — a technique known as percussive foraging. It then uses rodent-like teeth to gnaw a hole and uses its long, thin fingers to fish insects out of the bark. Basically, it's the primate version of a woodpecker. Unfortunately, it is also endangered, mainly due to habitat loss.

4
of 10

Mongoose lemur

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The mongoose lemur is one of only two lemurs found outside of Madagascar, and it is an introduced resident of the Comoros Islands. Even with this extra real estate, it's still limited to a tiny area of Madagascar and is listed as a critically endangered species. It eats fruits, flowers, and nectar, making it important for both pollination and seed dispersal. Rather than being diurnal, nocturnal, or crepuscular like most animals, mongoose lemurs are cathemeral, meaning they're active at varying times of the day and night depending on the season and availability of light.

5
of 10

Bamboo lemur

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The bamboo lemur wasn't called that until the 1980s. Before that, it was known as the gentle lemur, which is ironic considering it is one of the most aggressive lemurs in captivity. (The "gentle lemur" name has to do with the Greek translation of the genus name, but that's a long story.) Anyway, they're now known as bamboo lemurs and there are five species and three subspecies, all found on Madagascar in forests where there is a lot of (you guessed it) bamboo. One of these species, however, is entirely not like the others. The Lac Alaotra bamboo lemur lives in the reed beds of Lac Alaotra, rather than high in the forest canopy, and swims much more capably than most other lemurs.

6
of 10

Fork-marked lemur

Russell A. Mittermeier/Wikipedia.

If the brown mouse lemur reminded you even a smidgen of the sugar glider, then the fork-marked lemur must look like the sugar glider's twin! The species is named for the two dark stripes running over its face and head. Found in patches of forest on the north, west, and east sides of Madagascar, it is among the least studied lemur. We do know, however, that fork-marked lemurs are nocturnal and get around by running along the lower branches of trees about 10 feet (3 meters) off the ground. They can leap quite a distance when moving from tree to tree, clearing as much as 15 feet (4.6 meters) horizontally or more than 30 feet (9 meters) when leaping to lower branches. They eat mainly gums and saps from various tree species, and also enjoy snacking on arthropods and sometimes even small reptiles, so their speed in the tree branches comes in handy mostly in territorial disputes.

7
of 10

Blue-eyed black lemur

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Winner of "best eyes" is the blue-eyed black lemur. It's a bit of a misnomer because only the males are black; the females are a reddish-brown color. Both colors help their striking blue eyes stand out. They are one of the only primates other than humans to consistently have blue eyes. But don't let those baby blues fool you into thinking this is a particularly sweet species. They're quite aggressive — they have skirmishes within their troop, and they will even commit infanticide against other lemur species when in captivity, a behavior that is usually rare. However feisty they might be, they still haven't been able to fight their way out of trouble in the wild. Deforestation has driven this species to near extinction. Sadly the blue-eyed black lemur is now one of the 25 most endangered primate species in the world.

8
of 10

Common brown lemur

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We go from blue eyes to vibrantly orange eyes. The common brown lemur lives in a wide variety of forest types, from lowlands to mountains, from evergreen forests to deciduous forests. This range likely factors into its status as near threatened, rather than endangered or critically endangered like so many of its cousins. The common brown lemur is mostly active during the day, but like the mongoose lemur, it can be cathemeral as well. In fact, these two species sometimes share territory, and adjusting the times of their activity helps them avoid conflict and peaceably divvy up the resources of their forest homes.

9
of 10

Golden-crowned sifaka

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This lemur species looks like it was patted on the head by King Midas. Its all-white or cream-colored coat is topped with a crown of gold. Golden-crowned lemurs live in groups of five or six individuals, and females are the leaders. The only known predator is the fossa, but humans are increasing as a threat through habitat destruction and an increase in poaching for bushmeat. Only an estimated 18,000 individuals exist in the wild, living in 44 fragmented pieces of forest. They are listed as critically endangered.

10
of 10

Silky sifaka

Jeff Gibbs/Wikipedia.

The long white fur of this species has a silky texture and, along with its completely hairless face and ears, it is a real stand-out among lemur species. The males use a scent glad on their chest to mark the edges of their territory, and the resulting orange-colored patch is the only easy way to tell males and females apart. Silky sifakas not only eat the usual leaves and seeds, but also sometimes dine on something several other lemur species snack on: dirt. They can get some minerals and nutrients from eating clay and soils, a behavior known as geophagy. Unfortunately, this species is also critically endangered, and is one of the 25 most endangered primates on Earth. There is no local taboo against eating this animal, so it is hunted throughout its remaining range, which has been significantly reduced through deforestation.