National Geographic : 1988 Aug
ringtail females need every scrap of food they-or their mates-can find. The males grow scrawny, seemingly strung together with tendons only. A respite comes with October, when a few trees set flower and fruit in time to produce seed for November rains. A ringtail troop gobbles nectar from the mauve blooms of bauhinia trees. The males regain strength and wander, until a quarter or a third of them have changed troops. They feed, fatten, and feud with their new companions, basically going into fight training for the next mating season. The emerging understanding of lemur seasonality has helped undermine an old view that sex is the glue of primate relations. Inspired by Freud, zoologists once argued that despotic pri mate males were attracted to females who were continuously, or at least frequently, sexually receptive. The theory does not apply to lemurs. Lemur troops are complex social units-nurs eries, feeding cooperatives, and defense guilds. They are not just seraglios. A ringtail troop is clearly a matriarchy. Daughters remain with the mothers who bear them and the aunts who help raise them. If another troop ap proaches, it is these Amazons who fly at the intruders, babies on their backs, to defend their territory and larder. Whether related ringtail females are loyal to one another for life isn't yet clear. An answer may come from the Beza Maha faly Special Reserve in south western Madagascar, where Malagasy and U. S. scientists have collared ringtails with red, green, or blue tags in an attempt to track individual ringtails throughout their 20-year life spans. All but two female white sifakas tagged in 1984 have so far stayed in their original groups, but many males have jumped troops one or more times each year. From this study should come our first detailed findings about lemur migration. When we are able to follow marked animals over their life times, we may understand the evolutionary social advantages of being dominant like Aunt Agatha, status conscious like Vercingetorix, or opportunistic like Bunthorne. Lemurs apparently have no trouble identifying members of their own troop or even those of others. Lemurs, like monkeys, have social knowledge and social uses of intelligence, though they lack the particular cleverness of monkeys in han dling objects. This suggests that our own ancestors' intelligence may first have begun to expand out of social necessity, and only later from the skills needed to find food or employ tools. NCE there lived lemurs the size of great apes. The first Malagasy almost certainly knew the taste of these giants. Imagine: 1,250 years ago dark-skinned hunters skirted a cliff in northern Madagascar. Beneath the precipice a stream threaded a canyon shaded by buttress-root trees spangled with flowers and fruit. One branch bowed under the weight of an animal swaying upside down, moving along the limb hand over hand, like a sloth. With hind legs only half as long as a man's, it had spindly arms equal to those of any of the hunters stalking it. It reached out long, curved fingers of an indolent hand to hook twigs and bend their leafy tips to its nibbling mouth. When the hunt ers came, the animal dropped its muzzle to regard them with bewilderment before giving its shoulder a quick lick. It was easy prey.