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Keywords:

  • behavioural ecology;
  • social organization;
  • primates;
  • lemuriformes

ABSTRACT

The aim of this review is to summarize newly available information on lemur social systems, to contrast it with the social organization of other primates and to relate it to existing models of primate social evolution. Because of their evolutionary history, the primates of Madagascar constitute a natural experiment in social evolution. During millions of years of isolation, they converged with other primates only in the most fundamental way in the evolution of solitary, pair-living and group-living species, but deviate in several respects within these basic categories of social organization. Solitary lemurs remain poorly studied, but their social organization appears to be broadly similar to that of other solitary primates, even though the unexpected lack of sexual dimorphism may indicate that similar types of social organization can give rise to different mating systems. The determinants of a solitary lifestyle remain elusive. Pair-living lemurs show striking convergences with other monogamous primates in several behavioural traits, but also deviate in that the majority of species are at least partly nocturnal and do not exhibit direct paternal care of dependent young. Group-living lemurs have not evolved single-male groups, male-bonded and multi-level societies, and polyandrous groups may also be lacking. Female philopatry is common, but female bonds are generally weakly developed and eviction of females from natal groups is not unusual. Group-living lemurs also differ from anthropoids in that their groups have even adult sex ratios, smaller average size and may split up on a seasonal basis. Feeding competition, predation risk and reproductive competition can not fully explain these unusual aspects of lemur social organization. It has therefore been suggested that the social consequences of the risk of infanticide and of recent changes in activity may be ultimately responsible for these idiosyncracies of group-living lemurs, an explanation largely supported by the available evidence. Thus, social factors and fundamental life-history traits, in addition to ecological factors, contribute importantly to variation in social systems among lemurs, and possibly other primates. However, neither the diversity of lemur social systems, nor the evolutionary forces and mechanisms operating in these and other primates are yet fully understood.