The sifakas of Madagascar's eastern forests are some of the most visually distinctive members of eastern lemur communities, by virtue of their unique and often brightly colored pelage combined with their large body size, upright posture, and long, powerful legs. Many serious authors have interrupted their scientific writing to comment on their striking physical beauty; for example: "They are certainly the most beautiful lemurs of Madagascar" (Petter et al., 1977: 344). However, these sifakas' ecology is equally distinctive and enigmatic relative to other lemur groups, a fact that escaped notice until the last few decades. As noted by many authors
Mitchell T. Irwin • Department of Biology, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada H3A 1B1
(e.g., Petter et al., 1977), eastern sifakas (particularly rainforest taxa) are much harder to observe than western sifakas, due to lower population density and denser habitat. As might be expected, the earliest in-depth studies of western sifakas (e.g., Jolly, 1966; Richard, 1978) significantly predated similar studies of eastern sifakas (e.g., Wright, 1987).
While eastern sifakas were last chronologically, they certainly are not least in terms of uniqueness among Malagasy lemurs. In terms of diet, eastern sifakas are relatively catholic: not as dedicated to reproductive parts (flowers/fruits/seeds) as Eulemur, nor as dedicated to folivory as Avahi, Lepilemur, or Indri. Their social groups are neither as large as the gregarious Eulemur and HHapalemur, nor as small as the mostly solitary Avahi, Lepilemur, and other nocturnals. In fact, several aspects of their ecology and life history do not fit neatly into established categories. They have gradually become much better studied, yet the functional significance of, and interrelationships between, these basic elements of their ecology remain poorly understood.
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