The Verreaux's sifaka is an easily recognizable lemur with a rather long, thick, soft and white fur, contrasting with a dark brown head crown, descending down the back of the neck. Meanwhile, the coat of this animal is considerably thinner on the chest, belly and underarms, exposing the grey colored skin. Males of this species are identified by the characteristic faint reddish-brown chest patch as a result of having a gland, situated at the base of their throat. However, the most distinguishing feature of this unique primate is its unusual way of moving. When in trees, the Verreaux's sifaka takes long leaps between tree trunks. When on the ground, the animal moves by leaping forwards while holding its arms high. The Verreaux's sifaka is the only lemur with partly webbed feet.
Verreaux's sifakas are native and endemic exclusively to Madagascar, where they occur in the south-western part of the island, from Tsiribihina River in central western Madagascar southwards to the Andohahela region. These lemurs inhabit a wide variety of habitats, from tropical dry lowland forests to montane forests. Population in the south-eastern part of their range is found in lowland, humid rainforest.
Habits and lifestyle
Verreaux's sifakas live in a social hierarchy system, dominated by females. These primates form groups of 2 - 13 individuals, typically made up of 5 - 7 mature females, 2 - 3 mature males and a few infants and juveniles. Males are known to for all-male units, composed of one male with a dark chest, mating with a group of females as well as 1 - 2 subordinate or so-called clean-chested males, exhibiting monochromatically colored chests. Group members generally live in peace and don't tend to show aggressive behavior, except for the breeding season. As diurnal creatures, the Verreaux's sifakas are active in the morning and late afternoon. Most of their active time is spent feeding, during which they prefer sunbathing high among tree branches of around 13 meters above the ground. These lemurs sleep from sunset to sunrise and their sleeping sites are located in the forest canopy.
Diet and nutrition
As an herbivore, the Verreaux's sifaka generally consumes leaves, bark, and flowers, supplementing this diet with occasional fruit and nuts, when the latter are in abundance.
Verreaux’s sifakas have a polygynous mating system, where a dominant male mates with a group of females. During the breeding season, subordinate males often challenge the alpha male, which leads to frequent fights. Breeding season in this species lasts between January and March. Females usually yield only a single infant per year, which is born in June-September, after a gestation period of 130 - 141. The newborn baby is carried close to the abdomen and chest of its mother until 2 - 3 months old, after which the infant begins riding on its mother's back for another 3 months. Then, at about 6 months old, young lemur in completely weaned and independent. At this point, females continue living with their natal group, whereas males may either remain with the group or disperse to join another one. Verreaux’s sifakas gain the adult size at 21 months old. The age of sexual maturity is 2.5 years old.
The population of this species has undergone a sharp decline during the last 30 years, as a result of habitat destruction for timber, firewood and charcoal. Additionally, in some parts of its range, the Verreaux’s sifaka is hunted by locals for food. There have been known cases of locals taking money or supplies in exchange for telling hunters the location of Verreaux’s sifaka. These primates are also captured to be sold as pets.
No estimate of population size is available for Verreaux’s sifaka. However, this species’ numbers are decreasing today, and the animal is classified as Endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List.
On one hand, the Verreaux’s sifakas benefit the local ecosystem by consuming various plants and thus acting as key seed dispersers. On the other hand, these lemurs are a prey species for numerous predators of their range.
Fun facts for kids
- Sifakas are so called due to the shrill 'shi-fahk' sound that these animals produce.
- When moving along the ground, these primates either hop or walk quadrupedally. As a result, they move slowly, wasting a lot of energy.
- These animals don't tend to grab food with their hands. When eating, the Verreaux's sifakas simply swoop a food item, moving towards it, so that their meal directly enters their mouth.
- In order to keep in contact over long distances, individuals use vocalizations such as clear, deep barks, typically emitted by the leader of a group. Meanwhile, growling or barking calls are used to bring group members together, when an intruder appears.
- These primates also actively use scent marking to communicate with conspecifics. This form of communication allows them to attract mates, engage in non-physical competition, claim a food source or territory as well as mark their home range, thus announcing their presence. The latter is mostly used by female individuals.
- When it comes to food, the Verreaux’s sifakas turn out to be very selective and even picky animals, thoroughly choosing food items, depending on their quality. During periods with abundance of food, these lemurs may neglect less suitable types of food in order to find the best meal.