The Night Gremlin
We can’t have a month dedicated to Madagascar without mentioning the animal that, in my opinion, encapsulates all that is weird, wacky and wonderful about Madagascan wildlife: the aye-aye. The largest nocturnal primate in the world, the aye-aye is by far the most specialised, unusual, and evolutionary distinct offshoot of the lemur family tree. Its jumble of quirky physical features baffled taxonomists for years, and even today it is viewed by many people as an incarnation of an evil spirit. So what better time to look at this supposed harbinger of doom than on Halloween?
A Very Peculiar Primate
The aye-aye is entwined in Malagasy folklore. Many Madagascan people view the animal as an omen of evil and death, and it’s not hard to see why. With its cat-like body, huge leathery bat ears, bulbous orange eyes, a balding face, beaver-like teeth, shaggy grizzled fur, and an oversized squirrel tail that takes up more than half its length, this strange (and not particularly good-looking) lemur seems as though it has been assembled from the leftover bits of other animals. I have heard people compare the aye-aye to a ‘buck-toothed, electrocuted cat’, but perhaps my favourite description is that it looks like a lemur drawn by Quentin Blake – ‘all pointy and scratchy, long bony fingers and goblin eyes’.
The aye-aye, with its amalgamation of outlandish features, is so strange that zoologists, confronted with it for the first time in the 18th century, had considerable difficulty in deciding what manner of creature it was. It was initially classified as a type of squirrel-like rodent thanks to its single pair of continuously growing, enormous incisors. It was only a century later that it was finally accepted as a primate and a lemur, albeit such a peculiar, aberrant one that it has been given a zoological family of its own.
Perhaps the most curious features of the aye-aye are its gremlin-like hands. It has the largest hand-to-body ratio of any primate, and each hand has a grotesquely long, skeletally thin middle finger (the third digit), which is three times longer than its other fingers and capable of moving 30 degrees sideways from its joint. In most other parts of the world, woodpeckers are so supremely adapted to finding and eating wood-boring larvae that few other animals can compete with them. Madagascar, however, is devoid of woodpeckers, which means there is an ecological niche for any animal that can extract insects from inside wood – and that is just what the aye-aye and its long, flexible fingers specialise in doing.
The aye-aye comes out at night and uses these extraordinarily elongated fingers to tap on the bark of a tree, at a rate of up to eight times per second. Its excellent hearing enables it to detect tiny changes in resonance that indicate the presence of a hollow cavity beneath the bark, which are often home to wood-boring insect grubs. The aye-aye chews a hole in the wood using its sharp, chisel-like front teeth. And then, with extreme delicacy and precision, it inserts one of those long, double-jointed middle fingers inside, like a bony articulated probe, to try and pry the larva out. Compared to its lemur relatives, the aye-aye has an enormous brain for its body size, probably a consequence of the complex hand, eye and auditory coordination that it requires to find its food.
The Finger of Death
It is thanks to the animal’s appearance and spindly fingers that the aye-aye is surrounded by so much superstition. Superstition is widespread in Madagascar and has an enormous impact on the way many people live their lives. Central to these beliefs is a complicated network of taboos called fady. Fady is a belief about the intimate way in which human beings are connected with the natural world. A great number of these cultural prohibitions are routine day-to-day tasks. For instance, some people believe that you must not hand an egg directly to another person (it must be placed on the ground first) and that you mustn’t hold a funeral on a Tuesday or there will be another death in the village. Many of these beliefs differ radically from village to village, and even from person to person, so it’s very easy for an uninformed western tourist to offend a large number of people without even realising they are doing it.
Many animals in Madagascar have some kind of fady attached to them and this can have a big effect on wildlife conservation. Sometimes, it can be beneficial and even aid the survival of a species. The Malagasy believe, for example, that many species of animal contain the spirits of their ancestors and must not, therefore, be killed – because if their ancestors become displeased, they may neglect to supervise the welfare of their descendants, and poverty or sickness may overwhelm the family.
But sometimes these beliefs can be detrimental and result in the persecution of an animal. There are many superstitions involving the aye-aye, and although there is considerable regional variation, it is generally associated with bad luck or evil thanks to its nocturnal habits, otherworldly appearance, and repertoire of strange, eerie calls. Some tribes claim that an aye-aye will enter a village hut and kill its inhabitants when they are sleeping by puncturing the arteries in their chest using its long finger. Others believe that if an aye-aye points at you with its middle finger – apparently the ‘finger of death’ – then you or someone you know are certain to die.
Because of this, aye-ayes are often killed on sight by locals, who believe that the death of the offending animal is the only way to prevent bad luck from following. Beliefs seem to be most extreme in the far north of the island. The dead bodies or tails of aye-ayes are sometimes hung on poles at crossroads outside villages in the Ambanja region, for example, so that the ‘evil spirits’ within them are carried away by travellers. In exceptional cases, entire villages are burned to the ground and then rebuilt if an aye-aye steps foot in one of its buildings.
Lemurs in Trouble
Over the past month, we’ve looked at just a few of the weirdos and oddballs that call Madagascar home. But as spectacular as these animals are, the biodiversity that we see in Madagascar today is but a fraction of its former glory. The arrival of humans on the island some 2,300 years ago heralded the beginning of several extinctions, including at least 17 species of giant lemur (some the size of gorillas), three species of pygmy hippos, a giant fossa, a strange animal that might well have been a relative of the aardvark, and the famous elephant bird.
Even the animals that still survive on Madagascar today are in pretty big trouble. Lemurs are the most threatened group of mammal in the world. A recent report suggests that almost 95% of the 110 or so species of lemur face extinction. New species are being discovered even to this day, but they tend to be immediately placed on the Red List. Even the famous ring-tailed lemur has declined rapidly, with possibly fewer than 2,500 of them left in the wild. There are now more individuals in European zoos than there are in their natural habitat.
The main reasons for all of these declines are hunting, capture for the pet trade, and deforestation. Around 90% of Madagascar’s original forest has been lost since humans arrived, and it is still being slashed and burned to make more room for agriculture, plundered for timber, and cut for fuelwood and charcoal.
The aye-aye is probably the most widely distributed primate in Madagascar (after humans), but it, too, is in trouble. The thing is, unlike many other species of lemur, we don’t really know how much trouble it’s in. Because they are nocturnal, black in colour, and prefer to spend most of their time high up in the canopy, aye-ayes are not the easiest creatures to locate and survey. As such, we simply don’t know how many remain in the wild. Number estimates are vague, ranging from 1,000 to 10,000 individuals.
I decided to end Madagascar Month with the aye-aye – perhaps the most elusive and mysterious of all the lemurs – not only because it seemed like a very apt creature to discuss on Halloween, but also because I feel like it embodies everything that is unique and enigmatic about the island of Madagascar. Sadly, like so many of Madagascar’s other creatures, aye-ayes are being pushed towards extinction – in this instance, not only due to rampant habitat destruction, but also because of the belief, shared by many Malagasy people, that aye-ayes are evil, wicked creatures, little more than harbingers of doom or misfortune. But, as I’m sure most of you would agree, nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to these weird, harmless gremlins of the night.