Fact Attack: Endangered Species No. 102 – The Aye-aye


Aye-aye

“Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom”
Bertrand Russell

Aye Aye In many parts of Madagascar, ancient Malagasy legend has it that if an aye-aye points its extremely long finger in your direction, you are marked for death.  Locals believe the aye-aye will sneak into the village houses, under cover of darkness, and, using its long middle finger, pierce the hearts of those sleeping.  The only way to avoid this terrible fate is to kill the tiny, defenceless creature and hang it upside down by the roadside, so that the malignant spirits will be carried away by passing travellers.  As a result, aye-ayes are killed on sight, a practice resulting in the species being accorded Near Threatened status by the  International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Aye-ayes are nocturnal and arboreal creatures who hide away in nests during the day, curled up at the top of the canopy and safe from natural predators.  However, when they do descend, they seem to know no fear of humans.  Reports suggest they stroll calmly into villages and approach people in the forest, making them very easy targets.  But, having been perceived as an harbingers of death for so long, the fate of the little aye-ayes has been more-or-less sealed, and these friendly little primates are rapidly diminishing in numbers.  The legend may or may not have been based on the fact that they look rather like demented demons, but whatever its origins, a call for education is an obvious must here, before all populations are obliterated because of this ludicrous superstition.

Aye Aye In a few areas, where the legend does not induce trepidation, aye-ayes are revered by the Malagasy. It is said they embody ancestral spirits and are a good omen.

The plight of the aye-ayes is in no way helped by ever-increasing deforestation, either. Growing human settlements are increasingly encroaching on the aye-aye’s natural habitat.   Agriculture is gobbling up the forests where tavy (slash-and-burn agriculture) is widely used.  The aye-ayes, along with most of Madagascar’s other lemurs, are rapidly becoming homeless and hungry because of this.  This has lead to them moving towards cultivated land and being shot as crop pests.

Aye-ayes, also hunted as bushmeat incidentally, are the largest nocturnal primates.  They are also one of the few solitary primates. These demonic-looking little lemurs may not be the prettiest animals on earth, but they are certainly very endearing in their own way. Aye Aye Unfortunately, because of their strange looks, rather derogatory remarks are made about them, and they have been awarded the dubious accolade of ‘one the ugliest animals on earth’.  Though, it has to be said, the aye-aye is a bit of a mish-mash.

The ears of the aye-aye resemble those of a bat, the teeth those of a beaver, the tail that of a squirrel and the large, orange eyes bring gremlins to mind.   The large, wickedly responsive, bat-like ears rotate independently, and can detect the slightest sounds, and the incisor teeth never stop growing throughout the aye-ayes life.  The most extraordinary feature, however, is the elongated, almost skeletal, middle finger.  Contrary to superstition, this digit is not designed to kill humans, but is, in fact, an evolutionary marvel and a highly adapted tool of the species.

Witness aye-ayes eating and it’s clear good forest table manners are not their forte, but their motor skills, using this incredible digit, are superb.  Rather like a woodpecker using its beak, the aye-ayes tap on bark to locate pockets of wood-boring Aye Aye insect larvae hidden inside.  This is known as percussive foraging.  Once the presence of larvae has been confirmed, the sharp, rat-like teeth gnaw away at the wood and in goes the long, thin middle finger to retrieve the grubs through the newly made hole.  All perfectly executed.

Aye-ayes spend the largest part of their day sleeping in well-made, woven nests.  They site these in tree forks and construct them with leaves and twigs. Time is taken building each nest, usually a whole day, and a single aye-aye may build up to twenty of these within its home range.  The spherical nests are quite intricate and consist of a closed top, a side entrance and a base of shredded leaves.  They tend to measure about twenty inches in diameter.  The aye-ayes may switch nests from time to time and others may occupy the nests left vacant.

Aye Aye babyThere is no fixed breeding season for aye-ayes, this seems to be an all-year-round event. Following suitable pairing, there is a gestation period of about one hundred and sixty days, after which a single infant will be born in the nest ‘box’.  The baby, born with floppy ears, will depend on its mother’s milk for the first seven to twelve months of its life, and remain with its mother until it is two years old.  This, in effect, means females are only able to care for one infant every two to three years, making re-population of the species a slow process.  The baby will remain in the nest for about two months before emerging into the canopy.  It will start on solids at about fourteen weeks of age.   Both parents will remain near the nest after the birth and the male parent has also been known to share food with the infant.

Assuming infants survive the rigours of the wild, it is generally thought they will not live as long as they would in captivity, where records show aye-ayes living up to twenty-six years.  Unfortunately, little is known about their actual lifespan in the wild.

Natural Habitat
Dense, tropical and coastal rainforest, dry scrub forest,  secondary growth forests, bamboo thickets, coconut groves and mangroves.
Where
Madagascar
What they eat
Mainly the inside of Ramy nuts.   Plus other f
ruits, seeds, insect larvae and nectar.
Threats
Killed on sight by locals believing it to be a harbinger of death.   Killed as a crop pest. Hunted for subsistence food.  Poaching for the bush-meat trade.  Habitat loss due to deforestation by way of human settlement and agriculture.  Natural predators include the fossa, birds of prey and snakes.
Status: Near Threatened
The Aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis) is listed on the  IUCN Red List of Threatened Species  as Near Threatened (likely to become endangered in the near future).  The species occurs in national parks and special reserves throughout Madagascar, though it is not adequately protected.  Captive breeding programmes exist involving various worldwide institutions. There is also an introduced population on the island of Nosy Mangabe and Aye-Aye island.  The species is listed on  Appendix I of CITES.
The global captive population of aye-ayes stands at about forty-five individuals.  Those involved include the Duke Lemur Center, Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust, London Zoo, Paris Zoo and Tokyo Zoo.

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