In my last lemur post we learned what makes a lemur a lemur. One of the biggest lemur traits has to do with scent- they have pointy moist noses, similar to your dogs at home, and they rely largely on smell for communication. Which differs from apes and monkeys but that is because lemurs communicate via scent. Lemurs can have scent glands on one or more of the following: head, feet, chest, wrists, hands, shoulders, and/or genitals which they use to mark their foraging routes. Ring tailed males have a spur on each wrist which allows him to pierce tree branches before scenting. A common thing to see is a ‘tail flick’- where one lemur rubs secretions from their wrist glands on their own tail and then flicks it at an opponent. This can start a ‘stink fight’ between males.
Females ring tails only have genital scent glands but with just one gland they can communicate their fertility, if they are pregnant and how far along it is. In fact, scent marking is so crucial to lemur society that an ill or socially stressed animal’s scent will change dramatically- possibly showing he is less genetically fit.
Duke University research has shown that ring tails may actually have the most diverse scent languages in primates. Lemurs could be using scent marking as a signature that shows who they are, their dominance status, and social attachments. Which could be helpful in avoiding aggression among males and inbreeding during the mating season. More research is needed but lemurs are communicating far more than we are currently aware of.
Our ring tailed lemurs seem to enjoy scenting everything. In fact my training sessions usually begin by putting crates into the yard or stall and then gathering my supplies- giving the lemurs time to scent mark the crates, otherwise I just kinda have to wait for them to finish.
Facial expressions are used to communicate as well. I copied the following directly from the National Zoo’s website, it lists the different types of Ring Tailed Lemur facial expressions and what they are used for. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to find any images to go along with these descriptions.
Staring open-mouth face: The eyes are opened wide, the mouth is open with the teeth covered by the lips. This occurs when mobbing a predator or serves to communicate an inhibited threat.
Staring bared-teeth scream face: The eyes are opened wide, the mouth is open with the corners drawn back so that the teeth and gums are revealed. This display occurs with terror flight.
Silent bared-teeth face: The eyes are staring at the stimulus, the eye brows are either relaxed or up, and the corners of the mouth are drawn back allowing the teeth to show. This is used to communicate submission or a friendly approach.
Bared-teeth gecker face: Similar to silent bared-teeth face only with a rapid noise attached to it. This display occurs during subordinate flee-approach conflicts and also when an infant is bothered.
Pout face: The eyes are opened wide and the lips are pushed forward such that the mouth resembles an “O” shape. This occurs with contact calls and also occurs with begging.
Hoot face: The lips are pushed forward to resemble something called a “trumpet-mouth.” This display occurs with long-distance calls (e.g. territorial calls).
And I can’t talk about lemur communication without mentioning vocalizations! Lemurs make some of the most interesting sounds I have ever heard. They can burst into roaring vocalizations without notice, which can be heard over a mile away. The biggest reason for vocalizing is to alarm others of danger, depending on the type of danger the calls may be different. But there are several reasons to be a loud lemur.
Turns out Ring Tailed Lemurs are one of the most vocal primates- some of their common calls include soft purrs, a cat’s meow, howls, grunts and barks, and more. These calls are used for many reasons: territorial, alarm, repulsion, cohesion, infant contact.
Vocalizations vary between species. The wailing call of the Indri Sifaka, has been described as a cross between a police siren and the song of a humpback whale. Our Red Ruffed Lemurs tend to alarm call when we pull the retractable hose too quickly- and it is quite an amazing sound to hear!
This page has a few calls listed- listen to several to see how different they can be:
I have heard the Yip, Cackle, Plosive Bark, (Cassandra does this when a hawk is flying overhead) Gulp, and Click- which is described as a location marker but seems to be Satyrus’ default sound.