Wednesday 19 January 2011


Aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis)
Image via Wikipedia
Dear oh dear oh dear. What do we have here then, ay? I thought lemurs were supposed to be cute and cuddly, with bright, feisty eyes and long, fuzzy tails. Who let Freddy Krueger in?

Large, black, sticky-out ears. Bulbous, orange eyes with a small pupil in the middle that gives a wild and intense stare.

The face is balding and there seems to be an off-putting lack of contour from forehead to nose.

The fur looks coarse, largely dark but speckled grey as if decorated by the dusty breath of an ancient, animated skeleton.

The fingers are dark, thin and bony, armed with claws like some crone.

All that's missing is a huge pair of bat wings and this peculiar beast would complete the nightmare. They don't have a huge pair of bat wings, though. They have a long, fuzzy tail instead.

To make matters worse, or maybe I should say "predictably enough", they are nocturnal tree dwellers. Clambering around the rainforest canopy in the dead of night, they spend their days in leafy nests. Being a lemur, a really weird lemur but a lemur nonetheless, they are from Madagascar. They were long thought to be some kind of even weirder rodent, a demon squirrel or something. This is because they have long, ever-growing front teeth that have to be controlled through gnawing. It doesn't get better does it. In fact it gets all the worse when you see the even longer, thinner and probably genuinely evil middle finger.

The truly astonishing thing is that the Aye-aye isn't actually designed to haunt human nightmares. That incredible finger is tapped against tree trunks and branches up to 8 times a second to find grubs. The Aye-aye puts its nose to the bark, squints its eyes like a watch maker and, with its ears swivelled toward that finger, it listens for the sound of a hollow beneath the surface. This holds the promise of some kind of wood boring grub. The Aye-aye can then gnaw into the wood and fish it out with the same horribly thin finger. This provides lots of protein, but Aye-ayes also eat fruit, nuts and nectar.

Aye-ayes are territorial, with males having much larger ranges than females. Female territories don't overlap with each other but males overlap with both females and other males. It seems that males can be surprisingly social with each other, though they are much more aggressive and competitive over mates. Females are also dominant over males, so it all seems quite complicated and interesting. Good job that female territories don't overlap or life could get a lot more complicated for the subordinate males.

It's fun to think of evil stuff. It's not so fun to believe it so much that you go out killing. There is an incredible amount of superstition surrounding the Aye-aye in Madagascar. Some say it's an omen of death. Some say if it points at you or looks at you, you die. Some say it creeps into people's houses as they sleep and use their finger to puncture the aorta and thus murder them. Some kill Aye-ayes on sight, a problem that gets worse due to habitat encroachment and Aye-ayes stealing fruit from plantations and villages.

The thing is, Aye-ayes are only about 40 centimetres (16 inches) long not including a tail that is even longer. Partial remains have been found of what looks like another kind of Aye-aye in Madagascar. One that died out less than 1,000 years ago. One that seems to have been about 1 metre long, excluding tail. Perhaps this is the one that had bat wings?

After all, it could've been worse...

Troll unit logo in game The Battle for WesnothImage via Wikipedia
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dw said...

really interesting blog

Joseph JG said...

Thanks! I'm glad you think so.

Christine P. said...

People who are frightened of that animal would probably wet themselves if they saw an opossum up close. I spend a lot of time in my backyard at night and have been able to observe raccoons and opossums up close. For anyone who's never seen one in the flesh, opossums look like giant rats, right down to the hairless tail. They're fairly noisy as they move around which, if you're unfamiliar with them, can make it sound like something much larger is coming in your direction. However, I've never had one get curious enough to approach me--they usually run away once they realize I'm near. The raccoons, on the other hand, can get very friendly once they get used to my presence. I even managed to get a good bit of video of one playing in a tree in my backyard one afternoon.

Joseph JG said...

You could be right! Some opossums get pretty big too, and they have some mean looking teeth. I guess the real problem is that people aren't simply frightened of the aye-aye, they've projected all sorts of strange supernatural powers onto it. That's something that can happen to pretty much any animal ugly or not. Rather tragic it is, too.