The Coquerel’s sifaka (pronounced shi-fak). My most favorite primate of all time. I don’t think I was the only little kid that fell in love with the Coquerel’s sifaka (and Chris and Martin for that matter) on the popular PBS TV show “Zoboomafoo.”
But I really became interested in the sifakas when I spent more time at the Duke Lemur Center over the past two summers. I enjoyed their noises, locomotion, appearance, and behavior. And for all of these reasons, I’ve chosen to take a closer look at the wonderful species of Propithecus coquereli, or Coquerel’s sifaka.
Propithecus coquereli hails from the northwest portion of Madagascar, to the north and the east of the Betsiboka River. You can find the sifaka in North Carolina’s very own Duke Lemur Center in Durham (shoutout!) or in a couple other zoos across the East Coast. Propithecus coquereli lives mainly in dry deciduous and semi-evergreen habitats, but they can also be found in coastal mangroves of the island. This is Madagascar and a closer look at the Betsiboka River:
The Coquerel’s sifaka eats a highly fibrous diet including young leaves, flowers, fruit, bark, dead wood (in the wet season) and buds (in the dry season). Because the sifakas eat such a fibrous diet, they have specialized gastrointestinal tracts to extract nutrients from their food.
Coquerel’s sifaka has an interesting social system and set of behavioral characteristics. Propithecus coquereli lives in small social groups of 3-10 members and is “matriarchal.” Matriarchal means several things: the social groups are bound by female heads and follow a female lineage, and it also means that the females have preference access to food and other resources. The female leaders are also inc charge of foraging, which takes about 30 to 40 percent of the day for a Coquerel’s sifaka. Matriarchal societies are rare in the animal kingdom, but are relatively common in lemur species, including the sifakas. I actually was able to witness this phenomenon in action when I met the sifaka at the lemur center. We fed the lemurs (including Lemur catta, the Ring-Tailed Lemur) and the male sifakas stayed behind until the females were clearly done eating. The males engaged in physical behavior that marked their submission when they finally approached the food. This included rolling their tail between their legs, making soft chattering noises, and grimacing their face.
The sifaka’s engage in highly seasonal mating, exclusively in January and February (there are probably little Coquerel sifakas on the way as we speak!) and they have a gestation period of about 160 days. Infant sifakas cling to their mothers when they are born and become fully independent at about six months. These cuties will become full grown at about one year old, and are sexually mature at only one to two years old. For your viewing pleasure, because I can’t imagine anything cuter than a baby sifaka, here is a baby sifaka.
Because Propithecus coquereli is such a social creature, it employs a variety of communication mechanisms. These include auditory, visual, and olfactory cues. A fun fact that I did not know about the sifaka before this project was that it got it’s name from the sound that it makes. The Coquerel’s sifaka makes a deep guttural sound and then a screeching noise that sounds like “shee-fack.” They also use a head jerk to communicate with other sifaka’s, as well as olfactory glands on the throat and anogenital areas.
One thing that particularly attracts my attention to Propithecus coquereli is it’s mode of transportation. The sifaka is what most researchers call an “upright clinger.” The sifaka has extremely long and powerful hind legs to assist upright locomotion, and relatively shorter arms. Because of this, they spend most of their time participating in arboreal clinging and leaping. The power in the sifaka’s hind legs makes it an extraordinarily magnificent jumper. When the sifaka goes terrestrial, it moves with bipedal hops in a forward direction, kind of like a kangaroo.
The Coquerel’s sifaka has become an extremely threatened species, and is actually considered endangered by many of the world’s leading animal protection agencies.Their natural habitat on Madagascar is shrinking due to slash and burn agriculture for livestock purposes, and burning of trees for charcoal. Even though hunting sifakas is considered taboo in by the Malagasy, many foreigners continue to hunt Propithecus coquereli.
I’ll end this fun little post by giving my favorite fun fact about the Coquerel’s sifaka: the same lemur that starred in Zobomofoo lives in North Carolina! His name is Jovian and he lives at the Duke Lemur Center. (As far as I know) He is still alive and well, so maybe everyone will get to meet him on our field trip!