• Before: Awww you’re so cute and rusty.
  • After: I wish I could eat and sleep at all hours.

See those big eyes? They can handle 100 billion different light intensities. And unless there’s a gap where your soul should be, they radiate 100 billion watts of cuteness.

Often overshadowed by the flashier ring-tailed and red-ruffed species, the red-bellied lemur is one of the rarest in Madagascar, and one of the least [edit, sorry!] common in captivity. It’s also an outlier because it’s loyal to its lemur-love.

One of the few to form a pair-bond, it lives in a close-knit family group, and has a built-in toolkit for keeping everyone safe and happy.

Image by Tee La Rosa

Use your head

Its lower teeth make a handy comb, both for its own fur and others’, and as well as feeling luxurious, the grooming, er, keeps their “healthy bacteria” topped up and stable. Because when you spend your life camping in the trees, the last thing you want is a horrible illness in your group. Horrible snacks, however, are relative.

If it craves a toxic millipede – and who doesn’t – it drools over it before serving, which is thought to neutralise its poison. The males, which you can spot from the red bellies and white eye shadow, also have a scent gland on their head for marking territory. However, they’re not the kings of the canopy.

Boss lady

It’s the white-bellied female who takes charge here, so she leads the foraging missions and has first dibs on her mate. She pops out one baby a year, and after five weeks of carrying it around, here you go Dad, it’s your turn. But if she gets too power-hungry or unpopular, she could be ousted by an intruder. And on the rare occasion that she does lose her perch, she needs to find another group pronto.

Safety in numbers. As long as you keep them up.

Aside from the family snuggles, group-living helps you out-psyche other lemur troops after your food, and a sentry is always handy for spotting a swooping raptor or creeping, dog-like fossa. Single parenthood would also suck, because even with two doting parents, baby red-bellied lemurs only have a 50% chance of survival. Then again, if food is scarce,  it doesn’t breed anyway, which is a problem for conservation efforts. And for the forest itself!

Canopy caretaker

Passing through the, er, passage of a lemur is essential to the growth of some native plants. The red-bellied also enjoys a dash of nectar, so its pollen-encrusted pout brings about yet more flowers. As a cathemeral creature – active throughout the day and night – eating and moving is what it does best, and the gaping chasm between the light levels of a cloudy night and broad daylight explains the need for large eyes. We’re not entirely sure why it doesn’t stick to one time of day, but its genus hasn’t bothered for about 12 million years, so it’s not exactly a recent development. Not that you could blame it.

Habitat loss, of course, such as “slash and burn” practices, are slicing its corridor of canopy even thinner, and illegal hunting for its fur or bush meat still continues. Being a curious tree scamp, the red-bellied lemur doesn’t exactly help itself in that department. Hopefully it won’t take another 12 million years to learn “don’t go and play with the humans”. Then again, when neither day nor night bother you, would you appreciate time enough to know that it’s running out?


Latin: Eulemur nubriventer

What? Rusty-looking lemur with a red (males) or white belly (females).

Where? A thin strip of rainforest in Madagascar, from the northern Tsaratanana Massif to the Pic d’Ivobe and the Manampatrana River.

How big? 35-40cm / 1.1-1.3 feet long, with a tail of 43-53cm / 1.4-1.7 feet long.

Endangered? Lemurs are only found in Madagascar, so a restricted range isn’t ideal, but at the moment the red-bellied is considered Vulnerable by the IUCN.

Probable motto: I’m cute, friendly, and crucial to the rainforest. I’m in trouble, aren’t I?

They look adorable. Do they need my help at all?

Yes, due to their home being hacked, slashed or burnt, or their being hacked, slashed and eaten. Although there are several captive-bred populations across zoos worldwide, that’s not enough, and these organisations are also doing their bit:

The Lemur Conservation Foundation

New England Primate Conservancy

Lemur Conservation Network

Its homestead in Madagascar could use some love too.

Just to prove I’m not fibbing:

Andriaholinirina, N., et al.  2014. “Eulemur rubriventerThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2014“: e.T8203A16117921.

Bucciero, Lauren. 2018. “Red-bellied lemur“. New England Primate Conservancy.

Eulemur rubriventer, red-bellied lemur“. No date. Edinburgh Zoo.

Lemur Conservation Foundation. No date. “Red-bellied lemur“.

Overdorff, Deborah J., and Tecot, Stacy R. 2007. “Social pair-bonding and resource defence in wild red-bellied lemurs (Eulemur rubriventer)” in Lemurs, Ecology and Adaptation, 234-254.

Sipa, Masika. No date. “The gardeners of the forest: red-bellied lemurs“. Mada Magazine.

Ströckens, Felix et al. 2013. “Limb preferences in non-human vertebrates“, Laterality: Asymmetries of Body, Brain and Cognition 18(5):536-575.

Tattersall, Ian. 2008. “Avoiding commitment: cathemerality among primates“, Biological Rhythm Research 39(3): 213-228.

Red-bellied lemur“. No date. San Francisco Zoo and Gardens.

Red-bellied lemur“. No date. Twycross Zoo.

Red-bellied lemur“. No date. Woburn Safari Park.

Zenner, Alexis. No date. “Eulemur rubriventer“. Animal Diversity Web.

Featured image credit:”Red-bellied lemur (Eulemur rubriventer), Rainforest, Ranomafana National Park, Madagascar” by dr322.