23.1b – The Dwarf Lemurs

The littlest lemurs. (Gerp’s mouse lemur photo by Blanchard Randrianambinina)

Though all of the lemurs found on Madagascar are a little on the small side — there is, after all, no evolutionary pressure to grow large when you have no competition and live on an island with limited resources — the dwarf lemur family contains the smallest members, and in fact they are the very smallest primates in the world.

There are 31 different species of dwarf lemurs, though many of them are known rather as mouse lemurs. Even the largest is less than a foot tall, and they have exceptionally soft hair. All of the various dwarf lemurs spend nearly their entire lives in trees, where they are agile and comfortable; on the ground they hop on their hind legs like tiny kangaroos, and become easier targets for predators.

As a nocturnal species, dwarf lemurs are not generally as social as most other primates. They tend to live alone or in pairs, though some of them form big sleeping groups during the day so they can snuggle up together. Some of them store fat in their tails, so if you see a dwarf lemur with a big chubby tail, you know it’s well-fed. During dry times and times of food shortages, many of the dwarf lemurs enter a torpor, in which they sit around and use very little external or internal energy to help them survive until food returns.

One of them, the fat-tailed dwarf lemur, enters a full hibernation during the dry season. It is the only tropical mammal and the only primate known to hibernate (discounting, of course, human teenagers during Christmas break). This is interesting because most animals hibernate because of the cold; but even during the dry winter, Madagascar is still very warm, and the fat-tailed dwarf lemur’s body temperature tends to go up and down depending on the weather outside, even while it’s hibernating.

“If your tail was this fat, you’d be sleepy too.” (Fat-tailed dwarf lemur photo by Petra Lahann)

The mouse lemurs are even smaller than the other types of dwarf lemurs. For a long time we didn’t know a lot about mouse lemurs for the simple reason that we didn’t know how many there were. All of the various mouse lemurs look similar to each other, so for a long time we thought there was only one kind. But in the last 35 years we have determined that even though they look alike, there are actually 19 different species of mouse lemur scattered around Madagascar, and perhaps more that we haven’t found yet. One of them, Gerp’s mouse lemur, was only discovered this very year, in 2012.

The smallest primate in the entire world is Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur. It averages only about three and a half inches long, and weighs only an ounce. It can be found only in one small national park on the western coast of Madagascar, and its interesting name comes from Madame Berthe Rakotosamimanana, a woman from Madagascar who founded the Group d’Etudes et de Recherche des Primates (Group for the Study and Research of Primates). Be thankful they didn’t use her full name for the species.

There are no freely-available photos of this lovely small primate, but if you are so inclined, you should click through to this photo to see a baby Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur, which I think you’ll agree is about the most adorable it is possible for a primate to be.

One of the most interesting things about the mouse lemurs is that they all somehow agree to get along and not bother one another. An extensive study was done on Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur and the gray mouse lemur, which live close to one another. They eat the same things and live in the same type of habitat. The gray mouse lemur is larger, stronger, more adaptable, and better able to survive; if it wanted, it could easily push the smaller mouse lemur out, perhaps to extinction. But it does not. The gray mouse lemur’s territory goes right up to the edge of the territory used by Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur, and there it stops.

Why? We don’t know. There are very few animals in the world that share the same resources and the same habitats without one suffering from the presence of the other. But the mouse lemurs, for whatever reason, are content to live with what they have, in the area they call their own, and not to bother their neighbours. If only some of the larger primates could be so reasonable.

“Hi there, neighbour.” (Brown mouse lemur photo by Frank Vassen)

In fact, some dwarf lemurs and mouse lemurs have territories so small that they can only be found around the region of a single village. They are blips on the map, but they are there, living their tiny lemur lives.

But like many lemurs, they are threatened by deforestation across the island. It is entirely possible, given the miniscule territories of some recently discovered mouse lemurs, that entire species of these diminutive primates have already been destroyed before they were ever discovered.

Dwarf Lemur distribution

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