As well as the various groups of smaller lemurs, Madagascar is home to three species of larger primates called sifakas, and the largest Malagasy primate, the indri. Like all primates living on Madagascar, the indri and sifakas are vulnerable to extinction. These large primate species are the closest surviving relatives of the giant lemurs that lived on Madagascar a thousand years ago.
Verreaux's sifaka lives in the forests of south-western Madagascar. It occupies two types of habitat - deciduous and evergreen forest. The trees of deciduous forests drop their leaves, not because of the cold, but because of drought. The evergreen forest is also dry, much of it is spiny forests found only in Madagascar.
This large, long-limbed sifaka has a naked black face, large eyes, and ears that are nearly concealed by its fur. Coloration is highly variable, ranging from yellowish-white to black or a reddish-brown.
This species lives in small groups of up to about 12 individuals. Groups contain more or less equal numbers of adult males and females. The group defends a small territory. They use their scent to mark the territory’s boundary. Males have scent glands on their throats, while females use ones on their genitals. The sifakas mate in December, at the height of the dry season. A single young is born five months later and it is weaned after seven months.
Sifakas move through the trees by leaping. The distance they can jump is increased slightly by small flaps of skin under the animal’s short forearms. These membranes allow the sifaka to glide slightly. On the ground, the sifakas move by hopping sideways on both hind feet. The forearms are held out to the side for balance.
Verreaux's sifaka has a body built for leaping. The hind legs are very long for launching the animal into the air. This species can make jumps of 10 m (33 ft).
They feed in the morning and afternoon on leaves, buds and fruit and are relaxed in their movements, spending much of the day resting and sun-bathing. Verreaux's sifakas eat all types of plant material apart from the roots. In the rainy season they prefer to eat easily digested soft fruits and flowers, but in the dry season they rely on wood, bark and leaves. Sifakas are primarily arboreal but sometimes come down to the ground.
Young are born from the end of June to August after a gestation of about 130 days. Females usually produce 1 young, which is suckled for about 6 months.
Distribution: South-west Madagascar.
Habitat: Tropical deciduous and dry evergreen and spiny forests.
Food: Leaves, fruits and flowers.
Size: 45 - 55 cm (17.75 - 21.75 in); 4 - 6 kg (8.75 - 13.25 lb).
Maturity: 3 years.
Breeding: A single young born in May to July after 5 - 6 months of gestation.
Life span: 23 years in captivity although probably less in the wild.
Diademed sifakas live in the high-altitude forests that grow above 800 m (2,620 ft) on the slopes of eastern Madagascar. This species is almost completely arboreal. They cling to trunks and make enormous leaps between trees, unlike other sifaka species, which often hop along the ground. These animals are diurnal. They live in small groups, which forage together for young leaves, fruits and other plant foods. The members of the group communicate to each other with a series of calls. They warn of a predator approaching on foot with a "tzisk" noise. Attacking birds illicit a honking call.
Diademed sifakas are named after the white tiara-like patch on the head. However, only one subspecies has this colouring: other members of the species are completely black or completely white.
A group of sifakas contains several adult males and females. The males are organized into a mating hierarchy and only the highest-ranking male mates with the females in the group. During the summer breeding season (in December in Madagascar), the top-ranked male is frequently challenged by other males, which prevents it from mating with and guarding the females. While the alpha male is seeing off a threat, lower-ranked males often take the opportunity to mate with the females. One or two young are born four or five months later.
Distribution: Eastern Madagascar.
Habitat: Mountain and lowland rainforests.
Food: Fruits, flowers, shoots and leaves. Scientists suggest that the animal's athletic nature is due to the large amounts of caffeine and other alkaloids in its food.
Size: 45 - 55 cm (17.75 - 21.75 in); 6 kg (13.25 lb).
Maturity: 2 - 3 for females; 4 - 5 years for males.
Breeding: 1 - 2 young born in April and May.
Life span: 20 years.