Life in the Thorns

A sifaka clinging on to a branch
Image Source: Frank Vassen

One of Madagascar’s most peculiar habitats can be found on the southwestern edge of the island. Strange spiny forests cover an area slightly larger than Wales – and it can only be described as a botanical wonderland. As the name suggests, spines are everywhere in this environment. There are huge, thorn-covered trees and strange, almost otherworldly-looking plants called Didierea, which are several metres tall and wave spiky arms towards the sky. This place looks like what a filmmaker might imagine an alien landscape to look like.

The spiny forests are, for most of the year, hot and dry (not to mention very sharp). But, despite this, they are full of life. In fact, around 95% of the plants found in this particular habitat are found nowhere else in the world. It’s also home to some amazing animals, including an unusual type of lemur called the sifaka. There are several different species of sifaka and they have an explosive, bark-like call, which is sometimes written down as ‘shee-fak‘. This is the origin of the lemur’s name, and although ‘sifaka’ is often pronounced by English speakers as a tri-syllabic word, it is, more correctly, pronounced si-fahk or she-fahk because the Malagasy often ignore the first and last syllables of their words. In this case, they do not pronounce the last ‘a’.

The sifakas cling to the Didierea plants in very un-monkey-like postures, their torsos vertical – rather like the indri, which we’ve already covered in a previous Madagascan Month post. And, just like the indris, the sifakas spring from trunk to trunk, seemingly ricocheting through the dry forest with ease, somehow avoiding thorns as they land that could go straight through your hand. These incredible, acrobatic leaps, sometimes 5 m or more, are powered by extremely long legs, which are almost equal to half the sifaka’s total length and very much longer than their arms.

These same proportions, however, make it difficult to run on all fours. On the few occasions that a sifaka does come down from the trees and crosses open ground, the shortness of its arms leaves it with no alternative but to stand upright. It then hops sideways on its hind legs, with its forearms held out in front of it or above its head for balance. This distinctive leaping gait is a rather comical method of locomotion that looks as though the animal is competing in a sack race.

Face of a Coquerel's sifaka
Sifakas (in this photo, a Coquerel’s sifaka) are phenomenal jumpers, noted for their acrobatic, upright leaps through the trees and, on occasion, across open ground as well.
Image Source: Wade Tregaskis

Sifakas are very promiscuous and a female will mate with any male that takes her fancy. She proclaims her sexual availability by scent-marking branches around her territory, which attracts other males from nearby areas. If the resident male catches ‘his’ female advertising herself in this way, he will rush over to the scented area and remove it by biting away at the bark. He then rubs his own scent glands over the same spot – this is his way of concealing the female’s invitations.

But male lemurs rarely get their own way. In most cases, females are the dominant sex in lemur society. Whenever a new source of food is found, it is usually the adult females and their daughters that feed first. The males must wait their turn. Any male who becomes impatient and tries to sneak a bit of food while the females are still eating will often be strongly punished.

In our final Madagascar Month post, to coincide with Halloween, we’ll be looking at perhaps the strangest, freakiest Madagascan creature of them all, a lemur that is pretty peculiar in the hand department – the amazing aye-aye.


  • Jason Woodcock

    With a background in conservation and animal behaviour studies, Jason's passion lies in the natural world. He adores all things nature and enjoys nothing more than spotting rare and interesting species out in the wild. He has also worked in a zoo and knows plenty about keeping the animals inside our homes healthy and happy, too.

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