National Geographic : 2015 Jun
A genteel disquisition on love and lust in the animal kingdom Basic Instincts PHOTO: JOEL SARTORE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE HABITAT/RANGE Forests of Madagascar CONSERVATION STATUS Lemurs are Earth’s most endangered mammal. OTHER FACTS Nine lemur species are named sifakas because shif-auk is the distress call they make when in danger. Lemurs come from one of the oldest branches of the primate family tree: Their ancestors date from the Eocene, as long as 55 million years ago. Intelli- gent creatures, they’ve had epochs to evolve, adopt beneficial behaviors, and refine social systems. Where have they wound up? With the females in charge. Though matriarchy is rare in primates, female dominance is the norm for most lemur species, including the Coquerel’s sifaka, seen here. Even the youngest females can pull rank on any male, and females get first choice of foods and resting sites, says Chris Smith of the Duke Lemur Center. “ We’ve seen females take food out of males’ mouths. And if he’s in a sunny spot she wants, she can just move toward him, and he’ll make a submissive cackle and get out of the way.” If a male displeases her, a female may push or slap him or rip his fur out. For the brief period each year when they want to mate, females “are little hussies,” says Duke University lemur researcher Lydia Greene. “They completely control which mates they want and how many.” Neither sex will dominate, though, unless lemurs’ prospects improve. In their native Madagascar they’ve lost 90 percent of their habitat, chiefly to slash-and-burn agriculture. Of the 103 surviving lemur species and subspecies, 20 are vulnerable, 49—including the Coquerel’s sifaka—are endangered, and 24 are critically endangered. —Patricia Edmonds What She Demands, He Does If a male displeases her, a female may push or slap him or rip his fur out. This Coquerel’s sifaka (Propithecus coquereli) was photographed at the Houston Zoo.