Aye-Aye, Captain

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
    While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
            Only this and nothing more.”

Madagascar Allan Poe, The Lemur

Today we travel to meet a creature so strange and terrifying that the locals live in fear of it, believing it to be evil and the bringer of bad omens. But these denizens are not your typical bogeys, such as lions, bears, sharks, and yappy little dogs.

To explore this beast we need to travel to the world’s scariest island, a place that elicits nightmares from discerning parents and film watchers alike:

Typically, lemurs are adorable critters. Endemic to the island of Madagascar, off the east coast of mainland Africa, approximately 100 species of these primates roam the trees of the world’s fourth-largest island.

Most of them look like this:

A mongoose lemur - photo by IParjan
Black and white ruffed lemur - photo by Mathias Appel
The diademed sifaka - photo by Charles J. Sharp

Every so often, however, evolution throws a curve into the fountain of beauty.

Consider today’s subject:

Photograph by nomis-simon

This lemur is just a bit less cute and a bit mangier than its cousins. What it lacks in the looks department, this creature more than makes up in its unique attributes and its extraordinarily fantastic name.

Our lemur pal pictured above is called an aye-aye. We’ll now proceed to use this name as much as possible.

The aye-aye, like all other wild lemurs, lives in the rainforests of Madagascar. That’s where most of the similarities cease.

The range of the aye-aye - info from IUCN Red List of Threatened Species

Fully grown aye-ayes hit two feet in length and pack a tail even longer than that; the aye-aye is also nocturnal. Coupled, these stats make the aye-aye the world’s largest nocturnal primate.

Early naturalists sometimes believed the aye-aye was a rodent because the animal possesses teeth that continually grow.  The aye-aye’s appearance and traits seem so dissimilar to most lemurs that scientists also classified them as squirrels or cats. However, genetic testing clearly places the aye-aye in the domain of the lemurs.

Sometimes being large and night-crawling can make an animal frightening to humans, but the aye-aye brings more “menacing” attributes to campfire horror-story sessions.

The gorgeous aye-aye smiling for the camera - photo by Frank Vassen

Like Edgar Allan Poe’s raven, the aye-aye tends to fill the airwaves with rapping and tapping in the darkness. Amazingly, the aye-aye uses echolocation to scour for its diet of seeds, fruit, nectar, and insects. Aye-ayes practice a technique called percussive foraging. Like woodpeckers, aye-ayes tap on wood at speeds up to eight times per second. Their keen ears wait for the signal to show them a hollow section in the wood. If they locate a chamber, they use their rodent-like teeth to gnaw a hole in the wood.

Wood gnawed by an aye-aye - photo by Dr. Minke Junge

As you can see in the image above, once an aye-aye nibbles into the open area of a log, the job is not complete. At this stage, the true horror colors emerge from this lemur.

The anatomy of an aye-aye’s hand seems to be straight from H.P. Lovecraft. The middle finger is much thinner than the others; the aye-aye uses this digit to tap the wood. This finger is unique among all known animals on the planet, as it contains a ball-and-socket metacarpophalangeal joint. The fourth finger is much longer than the others, which the aye-aye employs as a hook. The finger goes into the gnawed-open wood, bringing forth delicious sustenance.

Close-up of an aye-aye's hand - photo by Dr. Minko Junge
Sketch of an aye-aye, featuring the famed fingers, by Joseph Wolf

These phalanges really cement the aye-aye as a monster to the Indigenous peoples of Madagascar. The entire package probably seems a bit creepy to a wild imagination: the aye-aye is fairly large for its kind, unusually appearanced, moves around in the night, makes odd tapping noises, and contains claws that fit in scary stories.

Many people in Madagascar view them as harbingers of evil. Some think if the thin, middle finger points at a human that the person is doomed to death. Some villages believe a sighting means someone in the community will perish and the only way to prevent death is to kill the aye-aye. In Sakalava myth, the aye-aye can sneak into one’s abode at night and use the long nail to puncture the aorta.

Unfortunately, these beliefs have driven the aye-aye to the brink. Scientists actually believed they were extinct in 1933, but several individuals popped up two decades later. Since then, efforts to conserve these creatures have blossomed, including a program on the nearby island of Nosy Mangabe and at Duke University. Still, they are officially endangered creatures.

Nearly as mysterious as the aye-aye itself is the origin of the name.

According to 18th-century naturalist Pierre Sonnerat, the name was a cri d’exclamation & d’étonnement, or a “cry of astonishment – AKA “what they said when they saw it.”  Another explanation centers around the Malagasy term heh heh, which translates to “I don’t know.” One rationale for this attribution might be for the local people to avoid saying the real name of an evil beast, so as to bypass any vexation that might come from uttering it. Or, perhaps, the aye-aye is so strange that “I don’t know” might suit it better than “long-fingered lemur.”

No matter the etymology, the next time you visit Madagscar and hear rapping in the darkness, you’re unlikely to hear the creature crying, “Nevermore.” But watch your aorta.

Further Reading and Exploration

Aye-Aye – National Geographic

AYE-AYE – Duke Lemur Center

Meet the aye-aye, the world’s weirdest primate – World Wildlife Fund

The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe

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