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Pubished in BBC WILDLIFE Magazine; February 1997 Page 22- 25
A JEWEL IN THE CROWD
A Story of a White Ring-tailed Lemur: Written and Photographed by ADRIAN WARREN
Life in the ring-tailed lemur community is a fascinating social whirl. And the arrival of a little gem of a lemur-Sapphire-provided a natural focus for their human observers. Adrian Warren tells the tale of the ringtails
Sapphire was just a few days old when we first saw him. Like any new-born lemur, he looked small and fragile and clung tightly to his mother. And yet one look was enough to convince us that he was something special. His fur was white instead of grey, and his eyes were a sparkling blue. If any animal had to be called Sapphire it was him.
Albino ring-tailed lemurs do turn up from time to time, but Sapphire wasn't a true albino, for he had black rings on his tail, as well as those striking blue eyes. He was a real rarity, and he was to play a starring role in the film we were making about a year in the life of ring-tailed lemurs in the forest of Berenty, southern Madagascar.
It was September -the time of the year when ring-tails have their young. The dry season was lingering, and it was oppressively hot. We sat in the shade of a giant tamarind tree and watched as Sapphire's companions took their customary siesta. Sunlight filtered through the feathery green leaves, dappling the soft grey fur of the ring-tails as they slumped, like lifeless puppets, over the branches.
Our guide to this peaceful scene was lemur-expert Professor Alison Jolly of Princeton University, who has been studying ring-tails at Berenty since the" 1960s. Alison's research has shown that ring-tail society is headed by females, among whom there is a fiercely defended, shifting hierarchy. For most of the year (and even in the mating season), the males, who have their own separate hierarchy, are kept under female control. Each individual in a troop knows his or her place on the social ladder and each has a close group of associates, friends and relatives with whom he or she spends most of the time, whether awake or asleep.
Ring-tails are the most social of the lemurs. They band together in large troops, whereas many other lemurs live in small groups that are really little more than extended families. The troop we were watching was made up of 27 individuals, a large number even by ring-tail standards. Living in large troops brings major benefits: there are more pairs of eyes and ears to sense danger and more partners to choose from when the time comes for mating.
To thrive in this complex society, ring-tails must be able to recognise one another as individuals. They have developed elaborate methods of communication as a result. Their calls are many and varied, and their conversation is almost continuous as they go about their daily routine. They also rely heavily on body language and a few facial gestures.
We looked forward to following young Sapphire's progress over the coming months as he learned these crucial skills. But for now, there were other things to think about, in the shape of two late arrivals to the troop -a pair of twins, one of each sex. Compared to Sapphire, they were unbelievably tiny, as twins tend to be. Partly because of their size, and partly because they were born late, to a subordinate mother, we knew they had little hope of both surviving.
Considering her position in the female hierarchy, the twins' mother was surprisingly calm and conscientious, often seeking out a quiet spot some distance away from her companions where she could give her youngsters her full attention. We knew she would have a tough time providing enough milk for two hungry mouths in the coming weeks. Everything was parched dry, the trees were shedding their leaves, and though there was plenty of food to be had in the shape of tamarind fruit, there was little or no moisture. It was as if the whole forest was holding its breath, waiting for the first drops of much-needed rain.
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