Meet the Lemur That Once Stood as Tall as a Silverback

Archaeoindris skull

Written by Emmanuel Kingsley

Published: December 5, 2022

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Lemurs are one of the smallest primates. According to reports, they are possibly the oldest recorded primates worldwide, even before humans and apes. There are over 107 known species of lemurs in the world, spotting diverse sizes, colors, and shapes. They can weigh as tiny as the mouse lemur, which weighs less than a pound, or as heavy as the indri lemur, which can weigh over 20 pounds.

Lemurs can easily be recognized by their long tails, hairy bodies, large eyes, and odd faces which share semblance with cats, dogs, and even squirrels. Though they can sometimes be odd-looking, they make great pets, especially due to their small size.

As small as lemurs are, it’ll interest you to note that there once existed a lemur species that was as tall as a silverback gorilla, reaching over five feet when standing. Let’s meet it!

Meet Archaeoindris: The Largest Lemur of All Time

Archaeoindris fontoynonti

Archaeoindris fontoynontii is the largest lemur of all time, with a maximum weight of about 550 pounds.

©Ghedoghedo / CC BY-SA 3.0 – Original / License

According to the Guinness World Records, Archaeoindris fontoynontii is the largest lemur ever, with a maximum weight of about 550 pounds. Archaeoindris, which translates to ancient Indri-like lemur, is an extinct genus that belonged to a family of sloth lemurs known as Palaeopropithecidae.

Compared to modern lemurs, these extinct species were giants, weighing more than five times the size of the largest extant monkeys, the mandrill, and as big as the largest great ape, the gorilla. Archaeoindris would have been able to hold their own against large apes like gorillas and chimpanzees that have been known to attack smaller primates such as monkeys.

What Did Archaeoindris Look Like?

Despite the enormous size of Archaeoindris, there would have been clear similarities between them and the modern lemur species. These large mammals were part of the sloth lemur family, which should not be confused with sloths which are not primates. However, they shared similar slow movements.

The closest relatives to Archaeoindris are the sikafa, wooly, and indri lemurs. Like the indri, one of the most distinctive features of Archaeoindris was the lack of a long tail. Lemurs are mostly known to have long tails. However, according to reports, they cannot grasp tree branches with them to hang from. Instead, these small animals use their tails to balance as they explore trees. Archaeoindris were heavy, with robust bones, and would not have needed long tails to support themselves.

Archaeoindris had short faces with eyes that were further forward than those of extant lemurs. They also had longer arms than legs, like gorillas. However, little is known about their hair color, hands, and feet.      

Were Archaeoindris Tree Climbers?

Due to the heavy size of Archaeoindris, scientists believed that these giant lemurs spent most of their time on land. These large primates had hip joints that were similar to arboreal animals which would have allowed them climb.   

What Did Archaeoindris Eat?

Archaeoindris fontoynonti

Archaeoindris majorly ate leaves, seeds, and fruits.

©Smokeybjb / CC BY-SA 3.0 – Original / License

Archaeoindris majorly ate leaves, seeds, and fruits. These large lemurs were herbivores, unlike living species like omnivorous ring-tailed lemurs. Evidence of the extinct lemur’s diet was discovered by scientists who claimed that the dental wear on the teeth of Archaeoindris was similar to those of living lemurs such as colobine and indri, which are herbivores.

Was Archaeoindris Nocturnal?

Archaeoindris was diurnal and often foraged for food during the day. This pattern is similar to modern lemurs, wherein the larger lemurs dare to be out during the day, while the smaller ones are mostly nocturnal.

What Animals Preyed on Archaeoindris?

Archaeoindris was as heavy as a silverback gorilla. It is believed that they did not have predators amongst the other wildlife in their habitat. However, that changed when humans came onto the island. It is believed that these primates were hunted by humans, heavily depleting their population.

Where Did Archaeoindris Live?

Archaeoindris range map

Archaeoindris were endemic to Madagascar.

©Madagascar_range_map_template.svg: *derivative work: Maky (Alex Dunkel) BlankMap-Africa.svg: en:User:Lokal_Profil Comoros_location_map.svg: en:User:NordNordWest Madagascar_rivers.svg: Esculapio Maps_template-fr.svg: Eric Gaba (Sting – fr:Sting) derivative work: Maky (Alex Dunkel) / CC BY-SA 3.0 – Original / License

The Archaeoindris species was endemic to Madagascar and was the largest primate to evolve on the island. Before the arrival of humans, the habitats of these lemurs varied from woodlands to savannas and bushlands.

According to the IUCN, about 33 lemur species in Madagascar are critically endangered, while about 103 of the 107 surviving species are threatened with extinction. It is feared that all lemurs on the island might go extinct, just as Archaeoindris did.

Fossils and Discovery

Archaeoindris mandible (1909)

All subfossils of Archaeoindris were found in the Ampasambazimba area in Central Madagascar.

©Herbert F. Standing (1857-1943) / public domain – Original / License

Fossils of Archaeoindris are called subfossils because they became extinct in recent years. The first discovery of these giant lemurs was made by Herbert Fox Standing in 1909. The Englishman found fragmentary jaws while excavating in Madagascar. Later, French paleontologist, Charles Lamberton, found an entire skull, giving a clearer image of the ancient lemurs.

Most subfossil discoveries of Archaeoindris were of the skull. Based on the limited remains of the ancient giants, Archaeoindris was estimated to weigh over 500 pounds. However, some debate that these large primates were smaller and weighed about 350 pounds. 

All subfossil discoveries were made in Ampasambazimba, in Central Madagascar. Thus, some scientists believe these lemurs might have lived solely within that territory. News reports claim that lemurs arrived in Madagascar about 40 to 50 million years ago and colonized the island. Without any natural predator, they increased in number and branched into different species. Some scientists believe that lemurs colonized the island twice.

When Did Archaeoindris Die Out?

According to reports, the last record of Archaeoindris was in the Holocene period, about 2000 years ago. While there is no proof to indicate the cause of the large lemur’s extinction, it coincided with the arrival of humans in Madagascar.

Due to their large size and sluggish nature, they would have made easy prey for the island’s new inhabitants. Reports claim that signs of butchery were found on bones to indicate hunting by humans. The excessive hunting, along with the loss of habitats to fires, and a prolonged dry period, is believed to be the reasons for the extinction of Archaeoindris.

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