A red-ruffed lemur seen at the Duke Lemur Center in North Carolina. (Photos by Russell Mittermeier)

A black-and-white ruffed lemur in the trees of Madagascar.

Learn a little about lemurs, and you’ll find a lot to love. Today 111 species and subspecies live wild in their native home of Madagascar, a lush island off the eastern coast of Africa. But there’s bad news: Lemurs, experts say, are among the most endangered primates in the world. Learning about them, however, is an important step toward saving them.

One of the most fascinating things about exotic, adorable lemurs is the dramatic differences among their species, according to Cathy Williams, an experienced lemur veterinarian and the curator of the living animals collection at the Duke Lemur Center in Durham, North Carolina.

Some lemurs, such as tiny Madame Berthe’s mouse lemurs, are as small as a golf ball. One of the largest species of lemurs, the indri, weigh as much as 20 pounds, about the size of a French bulldog.

Some lemurs eat seeds while others eat leaves, flowers, insects or bamboo.

They differ in personality types, too — some are friendly and curious, and others are quiet and shy or territorial and protective of group members.


A white-footed sportive lemur in a daytime sleeping site — a tree hole — in a private wildlife reserve called Berenty, in Madagascar. (Russell Mittermeier)

“The aye-aye,” Williams says, “is the most curious and inquisitive,” often tapping their keepers’ shoes or trying to grab their keys in their enclosure at the Duke Lemur Center.

Lemurs also vary in the size and type of groups in which they live and in their ways of getting around. For example, sifaka lemurs leap from tree to tree, while brown lemurs tend to walk along horizontal branches.

There are even differences in how lemurs carry their young.

“Some stay in a nest,” Williams says, “some ride and some get parked on branches while Mom is away finding food.”

Madagascar, which is about the size of Texas, is the only place lemurs live wild. Many scientists consider the island to be “megadiverse,” which means it’s one of Earth’s most rich and unique ecosystems. It’s also home to a variety of animals, including flamingos, fruit bats, crocodiles and chameleons.

According to leading conservationists in a recent report, almost all — 95 percent — of lemur species are close to becoming extinct. That means they could soon cease to live in the wild. Madagascar, in addition to being one of the most ecologically diverse places on Earth, is also one of the poorest. Human activities such as illegal logging, mining of natural resources and burning forests to make room for farming have caused lemurs’ tropical forest habitat to disappear at an alarming rate.

“Lemurs depend on the forest, and their habitat is being destroyed,” says Russell Mittermeier, the chief conservation officer of an organization called the Global Wildlife Conservation.

“Lemurs are so important,” Mittermeier says, “and the world loves them. We shouldn’t let them disappear.”

Seventeen species already have, he says, including one lemur species that was the size of a gorilla.

The animals play an important role in keeping the forest healthy. Fruit-eating lemurs spread seeds as they eat. Flower-eating lemurs serve as important pollinators. The beloved animals also play a huge part in the country’s eco-tourism industry.

If humans protect lemurs’ habitat, Mittermeier says, he is optimistic the resilient animals can make a comeback.

What can kids do to help?

Mittermeier says kids should learn everything they can about the species and why the forest is important. Then, share what you know with anyone who will listen. Spend time outside to build an appreciation for nature. Williams suggests planting a native garden, especially one that will attract pollinators, and sponsoring an animal at the Duke Lemur Center.

“We can save lemurs,” Mittermeier says, “and we have the responsibility to try.”

Where to see lemurs

A ring-tailed lemur feeding in Berenty Private Reserve in Madagascar. You can see similar lemurs at the National Zoo. (Russell Mittermeier)

You can see lemurs in the wild if you’re fortunate enough to travel to Madagascar. Here are two places you can meet lemurs a little closer to home:

•The Smithsonian’s National Zoo. At the zoo’s Lemur Island exhibit, you might see black-and-white ruffed lemurs or ring-tailed lemurs sunning themselves. In the Small Mammal House, catch a glimpse of a rare, rusty-colored red-ruffed lemur ( nationalzoo.si.edu/animals/ring-tailed-lemur).

•The Duke Lemur Center. Take a trip to Durham, North Carolina, to meet 15 species of lemurs, the most diverse population of lemurs outside of Madagascar. Reservations are required(lemur.duke.edu).