There are 22 species of modern lemurs, and they all live in the wooded areas of Madagascar and the Comoro Islands. They vary in size from the mouse lemur at 66 g (2.3 oz.) to the Indri lemur at 10 kg (22 lb.).
Fossils of lemurs have been found in Europe, America and Asia. This primitive primate has changed little in 50 million years. It is believed to be very similar to the early ancestors of humans.
Lemurs have the face of a fox and monkey-like hands and feet. Like most primates, they have opposable thumbs and opposable big toes. (Humans are primates too, but our big toes are not opposable). Most of their time is spent in the trees, where they exist on a diet of leaves, fruit, insects and lizards. Their loud cries echo through the forest as they search for food.
The ring-tailed lemur, with its distinctive black and white tail, is one of the better-known lemurs. These animals form troops of 12 to 24 individuals, organized around a core group of adult females and their young. One or more adult males will join the troop from time to time.
Male black lemurs are indeed black, but the females are a bright rust-red with a white frill around the lower neck and sides of the face. These lemurs weigh between 2 and 3 kg (4.5 to 6.5 lb.) and their bushy tail, which is about half of the animal's total length, makes them appear larger.
Black lemurs once inhabited the northwestern part of Madagascar. There were taboos against killing them, but as natural forests were replaced by plantations this protection disappeared and they were poisoned or shot as pests. Today the black lemur is an endangered species and is found only in a small area on Madagascar and on two small islands off its northwest coast. On one island they have the benefit of a reserve of natural forest. Black lemurs are legally protected and international trade is strictly controlled, but their capture for zoos is permitted on those plantations where they flourish.