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Introduction to the Babakoto
The Indri Lemur, a.k.a Babakoto to natives is the largest living lemur subspecies and is unfortunately also endangered. Like all other lemurs, this primate is found only in Madagascar. The reason why lemurs are unique to this country lies within its history.
160 million years ago, Madagascar was part of a “super-continent” known as Gondwanaland. This large land mass also contained Africa, South America, Australia, Antarctica, and India. Around 60 million years ago lemurs were prevalent throughout this collective continent however the introduction of smarter primates, monkeys, proved to be too much. The monkeys out competed the lemurs and pushed them to the brink of extinction. Only the lemurs that resided in Madagascar survived when the country broke free from Gondwanaland. It was out of sheer luck and isolation that lemurs even exist today.
Ecology of the Babakoto
The Indri Indri, is a diurnal tree dweller located only in Madagascar's rainforests. Unlike most of its lemur brothers, the Indri is not nocturnal although it still maintains many other characteristics. The Indri has a height of almost 4 feet when fully extended and a weight of 30 lbs. It has the typical luminous big yellow eyes that lemurs are notorious for. It has a black face with fuzzy ears that give it the appearance that looks like cross between a teddy bear and koala. While the face is black the fur of the Indri will vary depending on the regions of Madagascar. Unlike most other lemurs, the Indri has a vestigial tail at only 5 cm. long. This however, does not seem to impede on the Indri's balance or tree climbing and leaping ability.
The behaviors of the Indri are quite remarkable and some are disturbingly human. The Indri is a monogamous animal and will only seek a new mate if its previous partner has passed away. Both parents will raise the child and the Indri typically lives in small groups of couples and offspring.
Their diet comprises mainly of tree leaves, fruits, flowers, and seeds. If desperate for nutrition the Indri may also seek out insects to fulfill needs. The feeding process utilizes their opposable thumbs. The indri will pluck off food with its teeth but uses its hands to grab plants and pull them closer.
The reproductive cycle of the Indri is rather slow. Females bear offspring every two to three years, with a gestation period around sixty days. However, they do not reach sexual maturity until seven to nine years old. Breeding season is typically November and December and the single infant is born in May or June. The baby is dependent on the mother until it is two years old.
The Indri has some rather peculiar talents and behavior. It is the only lemur that sings as a form of communication. Their song is described as a mix between police sirens and whale song and scientists believe they have multiple purposes. The typical song can last from 45 seconds to 3 minutes and are typically performed by each family and community. Communities of Indri also seem to respond back and forth to songs, appearing to resemble conversations.
Scientists believe that the songs can alert others about nearby predators. Certain hoots have been linked to aerial threats where other noises are attributed to terrestrial ones. Longer songs seem to contain information about the number of Indri in a group, number of mates, and possibly territorial boundaries. The typical time of day that Indri lemurs sing are from 7 AM to 11 AM however during mating season, songs last throughout the day and sometimes into the night.
Another interesting trait of the Indri is its penchant for sunbathing. Locals believe that the Indri are related to humans and are sun worshippers.
Threats both Old and New
The Indri has a couple of natural predators. As mentioned earlier, they have developed call signs to warn fellow lemurs when a predator is nearby. Aerial predators include raptors native to Madagascar such as the hawk and terrestrial predators such as the mongoosey looking fossa. Yet, recently there have been animals introduced into Madagascar that have disturbed the Indri and other lemurs' livelihood. The Indian civet and mongoose along with feral cats and dogs are all invasive species that threaten the survival of the Indri.
Deforestation is huge threat to the Indri. Burning forests is an economy that sustains Madagascar. Forests are removed for logging, fuel wood, and land for agriculture but they also have malicious effects on the environment. Due to this practice, the Indri's habitat is fragmented. Larger communities of Indri live together as they can no longer spread themselves out to their desired population. This also puts a strain on them as they have fewer resources to sustain a greater number.
Global warming is also another factor. As trees are burned and Madagascar has fewer trees, the environment of the Indri will deteriorate. There will be less tree leaves, fruits, and plant life for the Indri to eat as well as a lack of shelter. As they live in the tropical rainforests, global warming will decrease humidity and disrupt the Indri's climate. Madagascar is also an island country and over time, may be threatened by rising sea levels.
As mentioned earlier, the Indri has a slow reproductive rate. With only one offspring every 2-3 years it is most definitely a K type species. This makes the Indri extremely vulnerable to all forms of stochastic events. It is no surprise to see that the Indri is listed on IUCN's Red List as Endangered.
Last but not least, we humans are the main threat to the Indri. Nothing else affects the animal both directly and indirectly. Since the arrival of man on Madagascar around 2,000 years ago lemur species have begun dying off. Once abundant because of their isolation, humans became their most dangerous predator. Records provide evidence that there were once gorilla sized lemurs, today the Indri is the largest lemur alive. Below are ways humans threaten the Indri.
- Hunting: Natives typically despise most lemurs. Because of their creepy appearance they are viewed as bad omens. However, the Indri lemur is held in high regard by the Malagasy. Various myths depict human beings descending from the Indri or being closely related. This is probably due to the Indri's large size, diurnal “sun worship”, singing ability, and small tail. In fact, the native name “Babakoto” actually means “little father”. Many tribes had “fady” taboo that prevented and shunned the harming of the Indri. Unfortunately, in a changing world many cultural customs have eroded and taboos broken. The Indri is now a target like other lemurs and is killed for its coat and meat.
- Introduction of Invasive species: Humans are responsible for the arrival of new predators. This could be a side effect of globalization, a direct contrast of a once isolated haven.
- Global warming: Obviously a human problem that we felt necessary to share. Human actions of deforestation, urbanization, and pollution all have immediate and long term affects on the Indri's habitat.
Efforts at Conservation
Fortunately there are many conservation efforts in Madagascar. Because it is the only country in the world that contains lemurs a lot of attention has been paid to make sure lemurs do not become extinct. 90% of lemurs are threatened in some way but there are many parks and national reserves for them. There are also broader programs that cater to many species and animals such as the forest recovery program which tries to replant trees and minimize/regulate deforestation. This will benefit all animals in Madagascar. Madagascar has also received recent media attention in the animated films “Madagascar” and its sequel. Different species of lemurs are portrayed here as slightly creepy but cute and fun loving animals unique to Madagascar.
Although 90% of lemur species are threatened in some fashion I believe that the Indri lemur will rebound successfully. Given its positive reputation and unique characteristics, the Indri is one of the more recognizable lemurs. Madagascar has seemed to realize how special lemurs are and what a national icon they represent. With deforestation laws, programs to replenish the forests, and dedicated national parks lemurs can be pulled from the brink. I hope this is this is the case because it would be a huge loss if such an exceptional species and subspecies were to disappear.
 Wilson & Reeder
 Indri Indri alias Babakoto…
 wildmadagascar.org (02/07/07)
 wildmadagascar.org (05/07/07)
 Mittermeier & Rylands
 Indri Indri alias Babakoto…
 wildmadagascar.org (06/01/09)