While we know a great deal about the ecology of L. catta, most of our knowledge is derived from studies at only a few sites comprised of gallery and deciduous forests, with the exception of the high-altitude groups residing in the Andringitra mountain range discussed earlier in this chapter. Clearly, to gain an even better perspective on this species, it is important for future researchers to seek out L. catta populations in unstudied habitats such as spiny desert forest, savannah, river gorges and canyon areas (such as those found at Isalo National Park and Lake Tsimanampetsotsa). An ecological study of a ring-tailed lemur population at Cap Ste. Marie on the southern tip of the island may be forthcoming (Kelley, personal communication).
Documenting variation in the resource bases used by ring-tailed lemurs in their diverse habitats would be very useful in understanding the complexities of their ecology. For example, while tamarind is considered the primary and keystone resource in gallery forests, and the importance of tamarind has been emphasized in many papers on L. catta diet, tamarind is not present in all habitats in which L. catta is found, and ring-tailed lemur populations are clearly able to survive in areas without tamarind trees, such as the Andringitra mountains. Isalo National Park and Lake Tsimanampetsotsa are two diverse and well-protected areas in southern Madagascar, which contain populations of L. catta (Goodman et al., 2006; Sussman et al., 2003). These would be excellent habitats in which to study not only feeding ecology, but also other ecological variables such as home range extent and use, group size, daily activity patterns, reproduction, demography, and life history.
Future studies in such alternative habitats could also focus on differences in female food intake and feeding behavior across reproductive seasons. Such information is already available from gallery forest habitat at both Berenty and Beza Mahafaly reserves (e.g., Rasamimanana, 1999; Rasamimanana and Rafidinarivo, 1993; Sauther, 1992, 1993, 1998), but no information regarding female feeding ecology in nongallery forest areas exists. Related to this topic, the effects of habitat variability on within- and between-group feeding competition could provide us with further information, which could be tied to variables such as fecundity and infant survivorship. Marked interfemale feeding competition and agonism, both within and between groups, has been well documented at both the Beza Mahafaly and Berenty sites (Jolly et al., 1993; Sauther, 1992, 1993, 1998;Takahata et al., 2005), but again in densely populated gallery forest areas where home range overlap can reach 100%. The extent of within- and between-group feeding competition and range defense in habitats where ring-tailed lemur groups are more widely spaced and populations are far less dense than at Beza Mahafaly or Berenty would provide us with a much broader perspective on the ways in which ring-tailed lemurs make a living.
Examining physiological stress (through fecal glucocorticoid analyses) in relation to habitat, group size, and reproductive variables in wild ring-tailed lemurs is another new area of research (Cavigelli, 1999; Cavigelli et al., 2003; Gould et al., 2005; Pride, 2005), which can help us understand how environmental and social conditions affect these animals. For example, Pride (2005) determined optimal group size for ring-tailed lemurs in three microhabitats at Berenty reserve, by examining mean cortisol concentrations in different-sized groups in the three habitats during periods of higher and lower food availability. Hormonal analyses of fecal samples is a completely noninvasive procedure, and has proven to be an extremely useful tool in furthering our understanding of environmental effects on health and reproductive variables, and future studies could examine such variables in habitats where ring-tailed lemurs have not yet been studied.
Similarly, an ongoing study of population health conducted by Cuozzo and Sauther (2004), Sauther and Cuozzo (2005), and Sauther et al. (2002), is documenting the impact of environmental and seasonal variables at the Beza Mahafaly site on dental health, parasite loads, and morbidity in a relatively large population. Future comparative data on populations in other areas of the geographical range of L. catta could allow us to compare health profiles between regions and habitats, and illuminate how both ecological and anthropogenic factors impact L. catta populations.
Although L. catta populations in alternate habitats in the south and southwest of the island are unhabituated, if they occur in protected areas where hunting pressure is not a factor (e.g., some of the National Parks and Special Reserve areas), it would be worth the effort for future researchers to undertake ecological, health, and behavioral projects in these locales, and attempt to collect data that would allow us to gain an even better understanding of this remarkably adaptable lemur, particularly since much of their unprotected habitat seems to be disappearing at an alarmingly rapid rate.
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