Ask the person next to you what a lemur is and he or she may not even know it's an animal. Someone more acquainted with the tree-hopping, furry creatures might guess they're related to squirrels or cats. But the truth is, lemurs are more closely related to you and me.
Lemurs are primates, an order that includes monkeys, apes and humans. There are approximately 32 different types of lemurs in existence today, all of which are endemic to Madagascar; a single island country off the southeast coast of Africa.
In order to understand the differences between lemurs and other primates, it helps to go down a level. Primates can be broken into two suborders: anthropoids and prosimians. Monkeys, apes and humans are anthropoids. Lemurs are prosimians. Other prosimians include galgoes (bushbabies) found in Africa, lorises found in Asia, and tarsiers found in Borneo and the Philippines. Unlike all other primates, prosimians have moist noses and rely on their sense of smell to determine what is safe to eat and to distinguish between individuals in their social groups. Like other primates, prosimians groom themselves and their acquaintances, but because prosimians can't use their fingers in the same way, they use their teeth as a comb. In prosimian species, females play the dominant role. They get the best food choices in the wild, defend the group and choose with whom they mate.
Prosimians are those primates that evolved before the anthropoids. The first prosimian appears in the fossil record about 55 million years ago, the first monkey about 45 million years ago, and the first ape about 35 million years ago. Before the appearance of anthropoids, prosimians were quite prevalent. Their fossils have been discovered in all corners of the world, including Europe, Asia, Egypt and even in the northwestern United States. While Madagascar broke away from Africa more than 120 million years ago, it's puzzling to scientists that lemurs evolved only 55 million years ago. One of the theories of how lemurs got to Madagascar is that they rafted there on clumps of vegetation.
Once monkeys and apes appeared, day-time active prosimians were out-competed and disappeared. Only night-time active prosimians occur outside of Madagascar because there are no nocturnal monkeys or apes in those regions (except for the night monkey in South America).
Since humans arrived on the island of Madagascar, approximately 1,200 to 1,500 years ago, 16 species of lemurs have become extinct, most likely due to habitat destruction and hunting by humans. The largest of the extinct lemurs was known as Archaeoindris and was about the size of a male gorilla. Some of these extinct lemurs were ground dwelling while others lived in the trees and moved very much like sloths. Generally, those species now extinct were among the largest and most slow moving of all lemurs.
In 1987, World Wildlife International declared that the lemurs are the most gravely endangered group of primates in the world.Since 1991, Dr. Kenneth E. Glander has been the Director of the Duke University Primate Center in North Carolina. Duke's Primate Center is the world's leading facility dedicated to prosimian primates.