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Gentle lemur

Scientific name: Hapalemur alaotrensis

Country: MadagascarGentle lemur

Continent: Africa

Diet: Leaves - folivore, papyrus grass, reeds. At Bristol Zoo Gardens they are given carrot, lettuce, cucumber, tomato, celery, leeks and bamboo or willow every day. They have special primate pellet supplements to ensure they receive all the necessary nutrients and vitamins.

Food & feeding: Herbivore

Habitats: Tropical grassland

Conservation status: Critically endangered

Relatives: Ring-tailed lemur, mongoose lemur, aye-aye, indri

Description: Small, with rounded features, short ears and muzzle, these lemurs have a thick woolly coat. The top layer of fur is a dark grey-brown colour, with paler grey undercoat. Males weigh around 1.35 kg and females 1.55 kg. Their bodies are 40 cm long, with a tail of approximately the same length.

Lifestyle: These lemurs live in the dense swamps of papyrus and reeds that line the shores of Lake Alaotra. They depend on the papyrus plants for almost everything, including food and shelter. To move from stem to stem, they climb using all four limbs. As the stem begins to bend under their weight they skillfully walk along it to reach the next stem. The long tail may help with balance. In this manner, they can bridge narrow water channels in the swamps. They spend much of the day eating in the wild because their food is not very nutritious.

Family & friends: These lemurs live in small groups containing one adult female, an adult male and their offspring. Some groups have two breeding females - these bigger families are more successful at raising young. Within families, grooming each other is important. They use their hands to part the fur and their front teeth to comb out fleas and parasites.

Keeping in touch: Like other lemurs, they use a mixture of calls and scent marking to keep in touch with neighbours.

Growing up: Females have one (sometimes two) young after a gestation (pregnancy) period of five months. The young are carried in the mouth and are 'parked' in dense grass for short periods of time. The mothers can swim with their young clinging onto them if they need to. After four months, the infants are weaned and reach sexual maturity at two years of age.

Conservation news: The Lac Alaotra gentle lemur is one of the most endangered species of lemur in Madagascar. There are just 5,000 of these animals in the wild. They are found only in the rapidly disappearing papyrus marshes that fringe Lake Alaotra. It is the only primate in the world that lives exclusively in reed beds and swamps. The marshes are burned and drained by fishermen and farmers. There are now only 13,000 ha of marsh left. In 2003, the swamps were declared a RAMSAR Wetland of International Importance.

Research by the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust has demonstrated the benefits of maintaining the swamps for local fishermen and farmers, as well as for lemurs. It is hoped that the future of the marshes is now more secure. In the mean time, zoos are successfully breeding this species to ensure that a captive population is maintained. Bristol Zoo is part of the conservation-breeding programme managed by Jersey Zoo.