Discover Lemur Island


Tonight, in a remote corner of southern Madagascar, we follow story of survival in the face of deforestation and poaching. Two families of lemurs, forced to leave their homes, are on the move and are in for a remarkable journey.

Madagascar’s unique history has a strong influence even today. Separating from Africa millions of years ago, the island’s plants and animals were able to evolve separately from their cousins on the mainland. Lemurs are thought to have arrived on Madagascar about 60 million years ago, when the island lay nearer to Africa and it was possible for them to float across the channel on natural “rafts.” Madagascar’s two species of lemurs, the ring-tailed and the sifakas, have since become different in a process called speciation.

Lemurs are small primates, about three feet long from head to tail with the larger sifakas species weighing up to 13 pounds. Mostly colorblind, they see the world in yellows and blues. Instead, they rely mostly on their sense of smell to interpret the world around them. Scents can mark mates, families, and territory, helping lemurs know where they are, who’s who, and where they are going.

Like most primates, relationships and social bonds are greatly important to lemurs. In order to create and maintain relationships, they groom one another—but unlike many primates, who use their hands, lemurs prefer to comb and brush with their tongues and teeth.

Playing games also helps to create trust between lemurs, helping to teach cooperation and other skills to their young. Many primates use games as learning tools, and for lemurs, these activities can occupy up to a fifth of each day.

Lemurs spend most of their lives in trees, where they can travel across the forest canopy with ease. This is a great advantage in places like Tsingy, which translates from Madagascan as “where Man cannot walk barefoot”: it’s packed with limestone spikes created by heavy rainfall erosion, making ground travel tricky.

Human encroachment on their territory means that foods—generally insects, flowers, and leaves, like those of the tamarind tree—are scarcer, putting larger lemur families on the move. These families are generally made up of groups of females with their young, with males moving between smaller nuclear families.

Photo of a Parson's chameleon in a tree.
This Parson’s chameleon keeps a close watch over its home tree in the eastern rainforest of Madagascar. (Photograph by Explora Films/Victor Martin)

On their journey to find a new home, lemurs encounter an array of astounding creatures that are unique to Madagascar. Without going far, they meet the highly territorial Parson’s chameleons, which fight one another to the last lizard standing in order to guard their home trees. Over one hundred species of chameleons—nearly two-thirds of all chameleon types on Earth—live on Madagascar.

Cinnamon roller birds also share trees with their lemur neighbors, watching out for their nemesis: the common big-eyed snake. These forest communities also include both day (or diurnal) and nocturnal geckos. In Madagascan folklore, nocturnal geckos are known as demons due to their otherworldly, lidless eyes that shine all night.

Join the lemurs as they set off on their journey. Don’t miss Lemur Island this Sunday August 9 at 10/9c only on Nat Geo WILD!