Lemurs Are Pop Culture’s New Sloths

3 minute read

There was a time, not so long ago, when sloths ruled the treetops of pop culture, swinging easily from viral-video fame to The Croods. Now, however, there’s indication that their reign may be drawing to an end.

What’s the only creature that stands a chance of deposing the sloth? It’s the crafty lemur.

But why?

The video of dancing lemurs above is from the IMAX 3D documentary Island of Lemurs: Madagascar, out April 4; it’s an in-depth look at the 60-million-year history of the island’s very special primate. But Island of Lemurs isn’t the only evidence that the creatures are approaching ubiquity. After all, the Madagascar cartoon franchise has been around for nearly a decade now, and its inclusion of a wacky-sinister lemur (King Julien) didn’t tip the scales of lemur popularity.

But even Madagascar is getting in on the beginnings of this trend: just last month, Netflix announced that King Julien would be getting his own show, debuting later this year.

Which creature recently knows that selfies are the new way to go viral? The lemur. Which creature has a popular expletive-laden Tumblr blog? The lemur. And which creature got chosen to be the alias of Ricky Gervais’ villainous character in the recent Muppets Most Wanted? The lemur!

Sure, lemurs haven’t completely overtaken sloths yet. But take a look at a chart of Google search trends for lemurs and sloths. The term “sloth” has a natural head start because it has multiple meanings, but if you compare the plural forms (sloths, lemurs) in the past year, there’s a clear downward trend for sloths and an upward trend for lemurs.

“It’s about time,” says Dr. Patricia Wright, the lemur specialist whose work is featured in Island of Lemurs. Wright was the discoverer of the Golden Bamboo lemur species, and confirmed the non-extinction of another species (the Greater Bambloo lemur) that hadn’t been seen for a half-century before she got there. “Lemurs deserve a lot more attention than they ever have had,” she says. “There are a hundred different type of lemurs, and they’re all cute and beautiful.”

And their photogenic nature wasn’t the only reason Wright agreed to participate in the documentary. A full 90% of lemur species are either endangered, critically endangered or threatened, Wright says. Her hope is that if the movie is successful, the extra attention for lemurs will help motivate humans to encourage lemur preservation. Wright and many of her fellow lemurphiles are starting from a historical disadvantage, as the island of Madagascar was closed to Western scientists for many years, but they have plenty of reason to make up for lost time.

After all, there’s a lot we can learn from lemurs. They’re primates (unlike sloths) and Wright describes them as “our most ancient ancestors”; because they were isolated on Madagascar for so many millions of years, they evolved in unique ways. Some can hibernate; others can eat food that contains cyanide. Lemurs also use their bottom teeth as a comb to groom each other.

But if Wright is any indication, the age of the pop-culture lemur can be a benevolent one for other animals. Though the scientist can’t wait to finish promoting the movie and get back to Madagascar and the real-life lemurs, she’s not immutable in her loyalties. “I like sloths, too,” she says.

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com