Varecia variegatavariegated lemur

Geographic Range

Ruffed lemurs, Varecia variegata, are found in the eastern rain forest of Madagascar. Two subspecies are recognized: V. v. variegata and V. v. rubra. The Antainambalana River geographically separates the two subspecies; V. v. rubra is found north of the river, and V. v. variegata is found south. The latter subspecies is also found on the island of Nosy Mangabe.


Ruffed lemurs are tree dwellers and are the most arboreal of the true lemurs (AZA, 1994). They inhabit the wet evergreen forest on the eastern coast of Madagascar (Black and White Ruffed Lemur, 1996).

Physical Description

Lemurs have long, soft fur and are famous for variation of color and pattern. In fact, many consider ruffed lemurs to be the most beautiful species in its family. At least five different coat patterns are found among these lemurs, including one in which an orangish-red color replaces almost all of the white coloration.

Black and white ruffed lemurs are among the largest of the true lemurs, with a head and body length of 51 to 60 cm and tail length of 56 to 65 cm (Nowak, 1987). Weights range from 3.2 to 4.5 kg. Females are larger than males (Black and White Ruffed Lemur, 1996).

The coat is long and soft, and color pattern may vary on different sides of the body (Nowak, 1987). In V. v. variegata, the coat is mostly black with large white areas on the head, back and limbs. The genus Varecia has a marking gland on the neck unlike Lemur, Eulemur, and Petterus (Nowak, 1987). In addition, other genera have only one pair of mammae, whereas Varecia has three pair.

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • female larger
  • Range mass
    3.2 to 4.5 kg
    7.05 to 9.91 lb
  • Range length
    51 to 60 cm
    20.08 to 23.62 in


The mating system of these lemurs is not well understood. These animals are usually found in what appear to be family groups, centered on a single mated pair. This indicates that the species is likely to be monogamous. However, because of variation in the social stucture, under which larger groups may be formed, there is a possibility that at least some populations are polygynous breeders.

Mating appears to occur in June and July. The estrous cycle of female ruffed lemurs lasts approximately 30 days with the estrous period averaging 6.25 days. Gestation is markedly shorter than in other lemurs, typically lasting between 90 and 102 days. Females are capable of having up to 6 offspring from a single pregnancy, but usually only 2 or 3 offspring are born at a time. In fact, over one-half of births are twins. Weaning occurs at approximately 135 days of age, and infants are close to adult size by the time they reach 6 months. Females are able to conceive at 20 months, but the average age of first reproduction is 3.4 years.

  • Breeding interval
    Females are capable of producing young annually.
  • Breeding season
    Breeding occurs in June and July.
  • Range number of offspring
    2 to 6
  • Average number of offspring
  • Range gestation period
    90 to 102 days
  • Average weaning age
    135 days
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    20 months
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    Sex: female
    604 days
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    Sex: male
    608 days

Mothers build nests for their newborns, usually in the fork of a tree. The female pulls out her own hair to line the nest. When it is necessary for the infant to be carried, the mother uses her mouth. This is distinctly different from most lemurs, whose infants cling to the mother's belly when young, then ride on her back as they get bigger. Infants are allowed to leave the nest at 3 weeks and are as mobile as their parents by the time they are 7 weeks old. The role of males in parental care has not been described.

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • pre-fertilization
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • protecting
      • female


Ruffed lemurs are thought to reach an average maximum age of 19 years.


There is some variability in the social behavior of V. variegata. Ruffed lemurs live in groups ranging from 2 to 5 individuals. These groups apparently represent mated pairs and their offspring. However, in some areas of Madagascar, groups of up to 16 individuals may be formed, although these break down into smaller subgroups during the cool wet season. These subgroups use different areas of the home range. Females seem to form the stable core of these larger groups.

Ruffed lemurs spend most of the day feeding, traveling, and resting high up in the forest canopy. They are the most active in the morning and late afternoon. When threatened, ruffed lemurs defend themselves and their territory with a nearly deafening call. Females defend a group's territory more often than males.

Communication and Perception

All primates show complex patterns of communication. In addition to their vocalizations, these animals use body postures and facial expressions to communicate. Tactile communication, in the form of grooming, play, and aggression, is also important. Members of both sexes are known to scent mark their territory.

Food Habits

Varecia variegata is the most frugivorous of the living lemurs, but it also feeds on leaves, seeds and nectar according to the season (Primate of the Week, 1996). They have also been known to eat soil at times (Black and White Ruffed Lemur, 1996).

  • Plant Foods
  • leaves
  • seeds, grains, and nuts
  • fruit
  • nectar


Formal reports of predation upon ruffed lemurs are not available. However, likely predators include raptors, humans, and fossas.

Ecosystem Roles

As frugivores, these lemurs are likely to play some role in seed dispersal. To the extent that they serve as prey for other animals, they may also influence local food webs.

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Ruffed lemurs are both trapped and shot in Madagascar for the economic benefit of humans. Ruffed lemurs are often hunted for food, and they are also sold to humans as pets. Because they are such entertaining animals, these charismatic creatures, along with other lemur species, may bring ecotourists to Madagascar.

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Ruffed lemurs are not known to have any adverse effects on humans.

Conservation Status

All lemurs are considered endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and are listed as Appendix I under CITES (AZA, 1994). They are listed as endangered by IUCN. The main threats to the survival of ruffed lemurs are habitat destruction, hunting for meat and fur, and exportation (Black and White Ruffed Lemur,1996).

These lemurs breed well in captivity and have thus benefited from a long-term, organized and well-managed breeding program (Madagascar Fauna Group, 1996). There are now over 225 individuals held in more than 50 North American institutions. Individuals from these populations will be released into established natural reserves in Madagascar.

Education also plays an important role in the conservation of ruffed lemurs. The two zoos of Madagascar with ruffed lemur exhibits are developing educational programs to help the Malagasy people become more environmentally aware (AZA, 1994).

Other Comments

Although ruffed lemurs have previously been classified under the genus Lemur, due to the species' distinctive anatomical and behavioral characteristics, it is now placed in the genus Varecia.


Nancy Shefferly (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Jenny Hallgren (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Jennifer Dubuc (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.



living in sub-Saharan Africa (south of 30 degrees north) and Madagascar.

World Map


uses sound to communicate


young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.


Referring to an animal that lives in trees; tree-climbing.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.

humans benefit economically by promoting tourism that focuses on the appreciation of natural areas or animals. Ecotourism implies that there are existing programs that profit from the appreciation of natural areas or animals.


animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.


union of egg and spermatozoan


A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.


an animal that mainly eats fruit


An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.

island endemic

animals that live only on an island or set of islands.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


Having one mate at a time.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

pet trade

the business of buying and selling animals for people to keep in their homes as pets.


having more than one female as a mate at one time


rainforests, both temperate and tropical, are dominated by trees often forming a closed canopy with little light reaching the ground. Epiphytes and climbing plants are also abundant. Precipitation is typically not limiting, but may be somewhat seasonal.

scent marks

communicates by producing scents from special gland(s) and placing them on a surface whether others can smell or taste them

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


remains in the same area


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


uses touch to communicate


Living on the ground.


defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement


the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.


uses sight to communicate


reproduction in which fertilization and development take place within the female body and the developing embryo derives nourishment from the female.


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Black and White Ruffed Lemur. 1996.

Duke University Primate Center. 1997. Black and White Ruffed Lemur.

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Harcourt, C., 1990. Lemurs of Madagascar. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland, and Cambridge, U.K.: 158-167.

Kavanagh, M.,1984. A Complete Guide to Monkeys, Apes, and Other Primates. The Viking Press, New York: 41,42.

MacDonald, D. 1984. Encyclopedia of Mammals. Facts on File Publications, NY.

Nowak, R.M., 1983. Walker's Mammals of the World. The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London: 375-76.

Nowak, R.M. 1997. Walker's Mammals of the World. Fifth Edition. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore. Online Version:

Primate of the Week. 1996. Black and White Ruffed Lemur.

Santa Ana Zoo. Endangered Species.

2004. "Madagascar Fauna Group" (On-line). Accessed August 17, 2004 at