The Aye-Aye: Unlike any Other

Dayna Rothenbucher

The aye-aye, scientifically known as Daubentonia madagascariensis, is endemic to the island of Madagascar along with many other kinds of lemurs. This particular primate is so far removed from other primates that it was split off into its own Family of Daubentoniidae, which contains the single Genus and species of Daubentonia madagascariensis. 

The first thing you may notice about this one-of-a-kind primate is its bizarre appearance. When first discovered, this primate was often mistaken for a kind of squirrel, as they are quite small in stature, weighing in at a maximum of 5 pounds. They also have a long, bushy tail. However, these primates have unmatched anatomical characteristics. Their hands are extraordinary. They have specialized digits to assist them in hunting and foraging. Their thin third finger has a flexible, ball-and-socket joint used for tapping on trees. When tapping on a tree, they are utilizing echolocation to listen for and pinpoint any insects inside the tree. They also cup their ears against the tree. When they hear movement, they tear through the tree bark with their sharp incisors and use their muscular fourth finger to pull the insects out of the tree. This species has also evolved a sixth digit, a pseudo thumb, to grip. In addition, aye-ayes also have claws that are useful for grabbing insects, which is rare as most primates only have nails. Check out this video to watch an aye-aye in action!

Besides their hunting techniques, there are many other unique things about this primate. They are nocturnal, meaning they are active only at night. This is when they come out to hunt, which takes up almost 80% of their time. They have disproportionately large eyes and ears for better sensing in the dark. Like bats, aye-ayes operate through the use of echolocation, and are the only documented primates to do so. They prey on insects using this technique. In addition, similar to rodents, the aye-aye’s incisors grow indefinitely, which requires frequent maintenance. The aye-aye is an omnivore; however, its diet mostly consists of insects like grubs. They also forage for nectar, seeds, nuts, and fruit. They are able to break open tough fruits, like coconuts, due to their specialized hands and teeth. The aye-aye is a solitary primate, except for instances of mating and infant care. Females mate and give birth to a single infant every few years. The infant is weaned off its mother around seven months of age and becomes independent once it is able to navigate the forest and tree canopies on its own. 

Despite how fascinating these primates are, unfortunately their current conservation status is marked as endangered. There are many reasons for this, all having to do with human interference. Habitat destruction is the leading cause of the aye-aye’s population decline. Activities such as logging and agriculture production deplete their forest cover. Aye-ayes thrive in the forest canopies, and rarely ever drop down on the forest floor. Without forest cover, they are exposed to predators and have no access to food. In addition, they are often trapped, shipped, and sold into the illegal international pet trade. Lastly, these primates are hunted and killed by the Malagasy people of Madagascar. According to locals, the sighting of an aye-aye is considered a bad omen and they are referred to as demons. It is said that they bring bad luck to the whole village. In addition, lore states that if the primate points at someone with its long finger, that they are marked for death. Locals often kill them on sight to prevent this. The exact number of aye-ayes left in the wild is unknown but is estimated to be just a few thousand. As of today, they are protected by law due to their rapidly decreasing population.

Legislation in Madagascar has been established to protect both the aye-aye and portions of its habitat. There are even locally run organizations, such as Groupe d’étude et de recherche sur les primates (GERP), that focus on completing reforestation projects, population counts, and most importantly, educating the community about the importance of coexistence between humans and primates. 

A close up of a bat

Description automatically generated with low confidence
Photography Credit: David Haring @ Duke Lemur Center

In order to prevent the extinction of the aye-aye, breeding programs have been established. For example, the Jersey Zoo, which is located on the Channel Island of Jersey, has been successfully breeding aye-ayes for decades. The Jersey Zoo is supported through the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, and their mission is to save as many species as possible from becoming extinct. Additionally, the Duke Lemur Center, which is based in North Carolina, and conserves 14 different species of lemurs, also houses and breeds aye-ayes. It is estimated that about 50 aye-ayes are in captivity worldwide as of today. 

Although aye-ayes may not be as attractive as other primates, like gorillas, they still deserve to have a fighting chance to thrive in the wild. These misunderstood primates are unlike any other, and without our continued help, they may disappear forever!

Sources: Animalia, Duke Lemur Center, Durrell Wildlife Conservation, International Union for Conservation of Nature, National Geographic, New England Primate Conservancy, Youtube