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.

Related Articles
Madagascar aye-ayes in danger
Aye-ayes: Endangered lemurs’ complete genomes are sequenced and analyzed for conservation efforts
Aye-aye lemur ‘heats up’ its special foraging finger
Secrets of a Strange Lemur: An Aye-Aye Gallery
Legends of Madagascar
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Fast Fact Attack: Endangered Species No. 61 – The Sumatran Tiger


Sumatran tiger in jungle

Image: Creative Commons

Description
From the eyes on its head to the whiskers on its face, there is not a single bit of the tiger that does not promise a cure for something.  Or, so decree the Oracles of Chinese traditional medicine.  And, if the Chinese are not boiling the tiger, grinding its bones into powder or making soup of it, others are selling it on the black market for as much as twenty thousand dollars per animal.  Live beasts are good, but dead pose little problem. And, of course, there is always a little bit of sport involved, too.  Then there are the land robbers, committing large scale pillage and rape.  They have logged, cleared, burnt, converted, planted and settled.  And, they show no signs of easing up until they have fully exploited the Sumatran tiger’s habitat.  The situation, by the admittance of Indonesian forestry officials, is now way out of control.  We are, in case you haven’t already guessed, back in Sumatra;  an island where they seem very practised at forcing species towards extinction.

Sumatran tigers can be distinguished by their thinner stripes.  Male Sumatrans have long fur around their faces, giving them a maned appearance.  They are smaller than other subspecies, with an average male weighing about two hundred and sixty-five pounds. Females are less heavy at about two hundred pounds.  Males grow up to eight feet in length, and females, a slightly shorter seven feet.

Tigers kill swiftly and painlessly.  A tiger will ambush its prey from behind and administer one fatal bite to the neck.  The spinal cord will break and death is almost always instantaneous.  They will then drag their prey out of sight.  They can eat up to forty pounds at a time, and will save what they don’t eat for later.  They are spectacular swimmers and have been known to chase their prey into water to gain an advantage. They live in dens and caves, and sometimes tree hollows;  they are mostly nocturnal and invariably solitary.

There is no specific breeding season for tigers, but mating often takes place between November and April, following which there is a gestation period of about three and a half months.  Three or four cubs will be born in a cave, a rocky crevice, or in dense vegetation. For the first few days their eyes and ears will remain closed.  The father of the cubs will not be involved in raising them.  They will stay within the confines of the den until they reach eight weeks.  At the age of six months they will begin their lessons in killing prey. However, their first lone kill will not be until they are about eighteen months old.  Cubs normally stay with their mothers until they are two or three years of age.  The juvenile mortality is high, however, and sadly, almost half of all cubs do not survive beyond the age of two.

The Sumatran tiger is the smallest of the five tiger subspecies.  It has lived exclusively, for over a million years, in the once extensive moist tropical jungles of the island of Sumatra, Indonesia.

Although tigers have been killed as a result of human conflict, the most significant numbers of killings have been for financial gain.  Poaching for trade is responsible for over 78% of estimated Sumatran tiger deaths, consisting of at least 40 animals per year.  There is no evidence that this trade is declining.

Almost sixty-seven thousand square kilometres of forest was lost between 1985 and 1997.  Most of that was lowland forest, the preferred habitat of the Sumatran tiger.  Since then, the annual rate of deforestation has increased dramatically.

If these illegal activities are not stamped out soon, or at least brought under control, there will be no future for the Sumatran tiger.

Habitat
Montane and peat forests, lowlands, swamps and rivers.
Where
The Indonesian island of Sumatra.
What they eat
Young rhinos, various pigs and members of the deer family.   It will also feast on smaller prey such as snakes, fish, monkeys and tapirs.
Threats
Habitat loss, illegal logging, depletion of prey base, human conflict and poaching.
Status: Critically Endangered
The Sumatran tiger  (Panthera tigris sumatrae)  is listed on the IUCN List of Threatened Species as Critically Endangered.  Most wild tigers live in the various National Parks of Sumatra.    Others, about 20% of the overall population, live in unprotected areas.  However, the square acreage of these supposedly protected National Parks is constantly dwindling due to illegal agriculture. The growing of coffee has become a major concern.  This issue, and others, can only be addressed by a) the law being strictly enforced – which it most certainly is not at the moment, and b) making the penalties far more severe that they are.

It is thought three hundred of the species may still survive in Sumatra in the wild. There are roughly the same amount kept in zoos.  “The European breeding programme and the Global Management Species Programme for Sumatran tigers are both coordinated by ZSL London Zoo – where ZSL’s specialists are responsible for ensuring a healthy and diverse population of tigers in zoos around the world.” [1]
There are various international organisations and trusts who are trying to help the Sumatran tiger, but unless something is done to halt the destruction of the forests soon, the Sumatran tiger will go the way of the Javan and Balinese tigers.  Both of which are now extinct.

“Man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all”
Aristotle