There are about 100 species of lemur in existence, and nearly all of them live on the isolated island of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. So their main diet is based on foods available within Madagascar’s 228,900 square miles. Luckily, there are plenty of fruit, woody plants, and insects for these big-eyed animals to enjoy during the wet season. So what do lemurs eat during Madagascar’s dry season when food is harder to find? Quite a bit less. The lemur can pack on extra weight or lower its metabolism to survive on fewer meals when necessary.
Lemurs are wet-nosed primates with opposable thumbs. Some lemur species are endangered, and it’s illegal to have lemurs as pets in some areas of the United States.
Let’s discover more of what different lemurs eat, how they hunt and forage, and how the lemur’s body adjusts to life during Madagascar’s dry season.
What Do Lemurs Eat?
Lemurs eat bamboo, bird eggs, flowers, fruit, herbs, insects, leaves, lianas (woody vines), pollen, sap, seeds, shrubs, tree bark, and small vertebrates like mice. Lemurs are omnivores, though some lemur species have an herbivorous diet.
Most lemur species are opportunistic omnivores, eating whatever food they can find. However, they can also be picky eaters too. For example, lemurs who love to eat leaves – a favorite food of woolly lemurs – tend to prefer the younger leaves of a plant over the older ones.
Primates are fruit-lovers, and lemurs are no exception. However, a 2017 study published in Scientific Reports showed lower nitrogen levels in the fruit available on Madagascar than in “New World and Asian-African primate communities.” Thus, lemurs probably supplement their diet with more leaves and plants than primates in other world areas because the fruit on Madagascar may have insufficient nitrogen to meet their nutritional needs.
Here’s a list of common foods that lemurs eat:
- Bird Eggs
- Tree bark
Fruits that lemurs eat include:
What Do Different Types of Lemurs Eat?
Different species of lemurs have at least slightly different diets. Here’s a list of five lemur species and some of the food preferences that differentiate them from their relatives:
- Aye-Aye – The aye-aye is mainly an insectivore, savoring a lot of insects in its diet. Aye-ayes have a long middle finger to pluck insects like grubs from holes they gnaw in tree bark with prominent incisor teeth.
- Ring-tailed Lemur – This striking and widely-recognized lemur has a long white tail with black rings. It’s one of the few lemur species that eat herbs, as does the bamboo lemur and the black-and-white-ruffled lemur.
- Golden bamboo lemur – As you can guess from its name, the golden bamboo lemur loves to eat bamboo! Unfortunately, not many lemurs can stomach a lot of bamboo shoots because of their cyanide content. Adult lemurs eat up to 18 ounces of bamboo per day. That amount contains up to 12 times more cyanide than a lethal dose for other animals similar in size.
- Grey Mouse Lemur – This lemur is another insectivore that seems to love beetles more than any other bug. They’re can also jump long distances, just like the frogs they also love to eat.
- Indri – Also called a babakoto, the Indri lemur is one of the largest of all lemur species. Indris have a folivorous diet, which means they prefer to eat mainly young leaves, along with common lemur foods like flowers and fruit.
What Do Lemurs Eat in the Dry Season?
Plants lemurs eat become scarce during the dry season between May and October. However, lemurs with omnivore diets eat more insects and small vertebrates like frogs and mice during these months.
The tamarind tree grows pods with tasty pulp inside. It’s one of the few sources of fruit that lemurs can find in the dry season. Ring-tailed lemurs are particularly fond of the tamarind.
Most lemurs survive the dry season by eating very little. They’re able to do so by entering a stage called estivation. Lemurs are one of the few animals that estivate.
Estivation is a dormant phase where animals can survive dry seasons on stored fat, lower body temperature, and lowered heart rate. During estivation, lemurs will also experience short periods of torpor, where their body temperature and metabolic rate dip lower than 32 degrees celsius. Torpor usually lasts less than 24 hours.
Of all the primates in the world – including humans, monkeys, and apes – the fat-tailed dwarf lemur is the only primate we know of that hibernates for prolonged periods. It’s the only lemur species that hibernate, too.
Fat-tailed dwarf lemurs gorge themselves in the wet season and store extra in their tails. By the time the dry season of Madagascar rolls around again, the fat-tailed dwarf lemur’s tail could be carrying up to 40% of its total body weight!
How Do Lemurs Hunt and Forage for Food?
Lemurs eat a lot of fruit, leaves, and nectar in the wet season. So how do they find these and other foods in the dense forests of their habitat? Most lemurs have a keen sense of smell that leads them to their favorite treats. For example, a lemur can pick up the scent of fruit from afar by shifting from side to side – a behavior called klinotaxis.
Some lemurs use scents to mark their paths back to their favorite food sources. For example, the ring-tailed lemur has scent glands on its wrists, chest, and near its genitals, used to mark its favorite foraging routes.
The lemur is a pack animal that lives in communities of around 15 to 25. One of the rare species of animals ruled by matriarchy, most lemur communities have a lead female who gets dibs on the best food. Or whatever she wants, whenever she wants it!