The Aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis) is a strepsirrhine native to Madagascar that combines rodent-like teeth with a long, thin middle finger to fill the same ecological niche as a woodpecker. It is the world's largest nocturnal primate, and is characterized by its unusual method of finding food; it taps on trees to find grubs, then gnaws holes in the wood and inserts its elongated middle finger to pull the grubs out. The only other animals known to find food in this way is the Striped Possum.
Daubentonia is the only genus in the family Daubentoniidae and infraorder Chiromyiformes. The Aye-aye is the only extant member of the genus (although it is currently an endangered species); a second species, Daubentonia robusta, appears to have become extinct at some point within the last 1000 years.
The Aye-aye is the world's largest nocturnal primate, and dwells predominantly in forest canopies. It weighs about 2.5 kilograms, with the female weighing in slightly less (by an average of 100 grams) than males. Other than weight and sex organs, aye-ayes exhibit no sexual dimorphism of any kind. They all grow from 30-37 cm from head to body, with a 44-53 cm tail.
The adult Aye-aye has black or dark brown fur covered by white guard hairs at the neck. The tail is bushy and shaped like that of a squirrel. The Aye-aye's face is also rodent-like, the shape of a raccoon's, and houses bright, beady, luminous eyes. Its incisors are very large, and grow continuously throughout its lifespan. These features contrast its monkey-like body, and are the likely cause of why scientists originally deemed it to be a rodent.
The Aye-aye's hands are arguably its most unusual feature. Much like other primates, it possesses opposable thumbs, but both the hallux and the fingers are long and thin, and appear to be in a curved position somewhat similar to that of a fairy-tale witch when the muscles are relaxed. The middle finger can be up to three times longer than the others.
Gestation for the Aye-aye lasts from 5 to 5 1/3 months. Births can occur at any time during the year, and females often wait 2-3 years between births. The infant takes about 7 months to be weaned, and stays with its mother for two years. The Aye-aye matures quickly; males rarely take more than 1 1/2 years to mature, and females take about an extra year. Lifespan is not known, but the world record is 23 years in captivity.
After impregnating a female, the male usually stays in close proximity until the infant is born and has matured a bit. The father will sometimes share food with the infant, but otherwise infants' primary source of social interaction is with their mothers. Mothers and infants often wrestle, chase, and play "peek-a-boo" for entertainment. After 13 weeks, infants are usually ready to interact with other young Aye-ayes, usually by play-fighting.
The Aye-aye begins foraging anywhere between 30 minutes before or 3 hours after sunset. Up to 80% of the night is spent foraging in the canopy, separated by occasional rest periods. The monkey-like body of the Aye-aye enables it to move vertically with ease. It climbs trees by making successive vertical leaps, much like a squirrel. Horizontal movement is more difficult, but the Aye-aye rarely descends to jump to another tree, and can often cross up to 4 kilometers a night.
Infants are fully dextrous within a month of birth. At first they can only climb on a branch hanging upside down, but they gradually work their way up to the various acrobatic feats that adults can perform. Curiously, walking and running on the ground is often hardest for an Aye-aye to master.
With D. robusta's extermination, the D. madagascariensis Aye-aye was thought to be extinct. However, it was later rediscovered in 1961. Six individuals were transported to Nosy Mangabe, an island near Maroantsetra in eastern Madagascar. Recent research shows that the Aye-aye is more widespread than was previously thought, but is still endangered.
There are several Aye-ayes kept in zoos. The largest collection of Aye-ayes and the most successful breeding program is at the Duke Lemur Center at Duke University with a current population of 22 individuals. Several also reside outside of the US at various locations in the United Kingdom: Bristol Zoo Gardens, London Zoo, and Jersey Zoo; and in Japan at the Ueno Zoo.
The Aye-aye was once thought to be a type of squirrel that lived underground, using its long finger to capture insects and worms.
Researchers in Madagascar report remarkable fearlessness in the Aye-aye; some accounts tell of individual animals strolling nonchalantly in village streets or even walking right up to naturalists in the rainforest and sniffing their shoes. Therefore, it is no wonder that displaced animals often raid coconut plantations or steal food in villages. It is not unlike the Common Raccoon in this regard.
However, public contempt goes beyond this. The Aye-aye is often viewed as a harbinger of evil and killed on sight. Others believe that should one point its long middle finger at you, you were condemned to death. Some say the appearance of an Aye-aye in a village predicts the death of a villager, and the only way to prevent this is to kill the Aye-aye. The Sakalava people go so far as to claim Aye-ayes sneak into houses through the thatched roofs and murder the sleeping occupants by using their middle finger to puncture the victim's aorta.
Incidents of Aye-aye killings increase every year as its forest habitats are destroyed and it is forced to raid plantations and villages. Because of the superstition surrounding it, this often ends in death. Fortunately, the superstition can prevent people from hunting them for food.