The Aye-aye

12th June 2010

“In the gloom it came along the branches towards me, its round, hypnotic eyes blazing, its spoon-like ears turning to and fro like radar dishes, its white whiskers twitching and moving like sensors; its black hands, with their thin fingers, the third seeming terribly elongated, tapping delicately on the branches as it moved along." - from ‘The Aye-aye and I’, written by Gerald Durrell.

This account of the aye-aye by the author, conservationist, naturalist, TV presenter, and zookeeper - Gerald Durrell - of ‘My Family and Other Animals’ fame, explains why this unusual animal, with its exotically peculiar looks, which inhabits Madagascar, is so maligned and therefore threatened by the native populations whom it shares the island with. The Madagascan believes that the aye-aye has magical powers and portends death to any village it is seen in. Given below are a few facts about the aye-aye which disprove this misconception.

Madagascar is the only place the aye-aye can be found in. Although at first glance they don’t seem anything like primates, they are actually related to us humans as well as apes and chimpanzees. As a matter of fact, aye-ayes along with other types of lemurs are a part of a group of primates known as prosimians, which means primitive primates characterized by being nocturnal and having large eyes and ears, such as lorises, galagos, and pottos.

The aye-aye is the sole surviving representative of the family it belongs to – Daubentoniidae. Some of the other names the Madagascans call it by are aiay, ahay, and hay-hay. In the 18th century as well as part of the 19th century, it was considered as a rodent. Although it is akin to the Madagascar lemur, because of its unusual looks and other distinctive features it has been assigned its own family.

Another of the aye-aye’s unique features is its dental structure, which is quite distinctive from every other primate. Like rodents, it has incisor teeth that grow continuously, which is why it was categorized as a rodent. The aye-aye, in fact, has such unique features that scientists have found it difficult to find other lemurs that can be categorized as its closest relatives, and neither does it fit into the primate category exactly. This is the reason it is considered one of the most unique mammals in the world.

Aye-ayes have a black or dark brown coat, and one of its most distinguishing features is its bushy tail, which is longer than its body. Some of its other distinctive physical features include: large and sensitive ears; slender and long fingers; and big, staring eyes. All the toes and fingers are equipped with pointed claws, apart from the opposable big toes, which help them to hang from branches.

The aye-aye spends most of its time up amongst the branches of its tree habitat, rarely venturing down to the ground. Since they are creatures of the night, in the daytime they curl up in their nest made of branches and leaves. They make their nests, which are spherical in shape containing a single hole as entrance, in the forks of the large trees.

While up on the trees, it uses its long middle digit to tap on the bark of the trees and listens for the movements of the larvae of wood-boring insects and grubs. If it does detect any sound, it cracks into the wood, biting through the exterior layers of the bark, and then using the same long middle finger, ferrets the insect larvae out. This extra long finger is also used to scoop out the flesh from coconuts as well as other fruits which augment the aye-aye’s diet of insects.

Aye-ayes are generally thought to be fairly solitary creatures. Some scientists who have studied the animal in its forest habitat in Madagascar think that the aye-aye moves in pairs. Each pair has the habit of feeding in trees next to each other. When one finishes on a tree, it calls out to its pair before moving to another tree, and then the second aye-aye soon follows its companion. The scientists think that this behavior proves that the aye-aye sometimes forages for food by cooperating in pairs while following a pattern for this kind of searching. Also, there is some social interaction when the male tries to court the female, since amongst aye-ayes the female is dominant to the male. A fair amount of social interaction is also seen when the female rears its young.

The aye-aye is highly active during the night, moving over large distances, hardly ever stopping to rest. Another of the aye-aye’s unusual characteristics is that for a nocturnal animal, it is very large in size – in fact, it is considered the largest nocturnal primate on Earth. Usually, nocturnal animals are mouse-like in size. Plus, the aye-aye is the only primate that uses echolocation to hunt its prey.

The aye-aye often demonstrates an unusual fearlessness towards people. Wild aye-ayes are sometimes seen strolling quite nonchalantly down Madagascar village streets. However, because of its long, clawed fingers, pointed teeth, large ears and eyes, giving rise to superstitions, the aye-aye is often killed on sight. That, along with the destruction of its habitat has resulted in making the aye-aye an endangered species.

Actually, this unique creature, which weighs about 5½ - 6½ pounds, is a gentle and curious primate, and is quite harmless. There is a heart-warming account of a scientist actually having to use a cage in order to study the baby aye-ayes. It was not the animals that were put in the cage; it was the scientist who had to stay inside, to prevent the playful creatures from sneaking away with her paper and pencils!

Each of its odd-looking physical features actually helps the aye-aye to survive. While it is not known in exactly what numbers they exist, it is estimated that there are about 1000 to 2000 aye-ayes still left. Today, the aye-aye is a protected animal and efforts are on to try and revive their numbers.

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