Gerald Durrell, The Aye-aye and I

It was Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky come to life, whiffling through its tulgey wood

First described at the end of the eighteenth century, but only recognized as a primate a century later, the aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis) is one of the world’s most bizarre and distinctive mammals. This cat-sized beast is the largest nocturnal lemur – but with its enormous mobile radar-like ears, coarse fur, long bushy tail, clawed hands and feet, and unnervingly huge, continuously growing incisors, it was long thought to be a kind of large squirrel. How the aye-aye (the origin of the name is unknown, but it’s rendered haye-haye in Malagasy) relates to other lemurs is still the subject of great conjecture among zoologists: current thinking places it quite apart from all other lemurs, though it’s presumed to share a common ancestor.

Constantly on the move after dark, aye-ayes forage through the trees and on the ground for hundreds of metres every night. Partly filling the natural niche occupied by woodpeckers in most parts of the world, they locate insect larvae by tapping and listening, then – using their disturbingly thin, flexible third finger – hook grubs from the holes they gnaw in branches and tree trunks. The aye-aye isn’t strictly an insectivore, however: the same finger is used as a spoon to scoop the juice and flesh from coconuts (the aye-aye having first sliced into them with those sharp teeth), to scrape nectar from flowers, and to pick its teeth. Ramy nuts (Canarium madagascariense), tree bark, fungi, birds’ eggs, and (where available) sugar cane, lychees and mangos all form part of its omnivorous diet.

Persecuted for damaging crops, and also because of the widespread belief that they portend evil – in many areas local fady tradition holds that they should be killed on sight, and their corpses strung up in places where strangers will see them and thus carry away the bad luck – the aye-aye was thought to be extinct in the 1930s, and was only rediscovered in 1957. Ironically, they’re now known to be the most widespread of all lemurs, living in most of the forested parts of Madagascar. Being widespread, however, does not make for a secure future, and the aye-aye’s low population density makes it susceptible to ongoing environmental destruction. So, too, do its unusual breeding habits: the smaller males gather to fight over mating rights (if there are too few males they may not be sufficiently stimulated to tackle the female, who is herself only receptive for a short time once a year), and the successful suitor then remains locked onto his mate for up to an hour. Females give birth to a single, helpless infant every two to three years. It’s a precarious procreation process for one of the world’s most vulnerable and least understood higher mammals. Only through captive breeding programmes – increasingly successful – does the aye-aye’s future look anything but dicey.

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