Spooky Creature Endangered by Superstition

Some of the locals in Madagascar believe the aye-aye uses its long middle finger to pierce the hearts of sleeping humans, but it actually is used to harvest insect larvae.Nick Garbutt / Discovery Channel / BBC

Although the aye-aye weighs a mere 4 pounds in the wild, this tiny animal is viewed as the harbinger of de̳a̳t̳h̳ by locals in Madagascar, the only place on Earth where you’ll find these creatures in nature.

According to legend, the aye-aye, with its dark eyes, long fingers and ghoulish appearance, is thought to sneak into the dwellings of nearby villagers and use its middle finger — considerably longer than its other fingers — to pierce the hearts of sleeping humans.

In fact, the animal uses its middle finger to find and harvest insect larvae in trees. It prowls at night, tapping its finger rapidly against tree branches to listen for hollowed-out pockets in the wood that hold grubs.

The aye-aye then chews an opening in the wood and claws out the grub with its long middle finger.

Superstitions around the aye-aye may have developed because it is apparently unafraid of humans. It will even walk right up to human passersby to take a closer look. The aye-aye’s reputation is, of course, entirely unfounded. However, because of the way the aye-aye is perceived, this perfectly harmless creature is often killed on sight.

The combination of these attacks and the fact that its habitat is dwindling has taken a toll on the animal. The aye-aye is now listed as “near threatened” by IUCN Red List.

If you think you’ve never seen an animal quite like the aye-aye before, you’re right. The aye-aye is one of the most unique creatures you’ll ever find in nature.

This unusual animal belongs not only to its own genus (Daubentonia), but also its own family (Daubentoniidae). The debate has long raged over how to classify the curious animal. Is it a rodent? A primate?

Checkout video of The Demon Primate:


1. Aye-Ayes Are the World’s Largest Nocturnal Primate

Aye-aye perched on a tree branch

Although they share an order with such sizable creatures as gorillas and orangutans, aye-ayes are the largest primates of the nocturnal variety.1 An average adult grows to be about 3 feet long and weigh around 5 pounds. Its tail alone can span a whopping 2 feet, longer than its body.2 Other nocturnal primates include night monkeys, galagos (aka “bush babies”), lorises, and tarsiers.

2. They’re Related to H̳u̳m̳a̳n̳s̳

Although they seem to differ greatly from humans in their physical traits — with the enormous ears, bushy tails, and all — aye-ayes are categorized in the same order as humans. They’re a very strange-looking cousin of the perhaps more familiar ring-tailed lemur, which (like all primates) shares about 93 percent of its DNA with humans. Still, though, scientists say the aye-aye has evolved to be more similar to squirrels.

3. They’re the Only Primates That Use Echolocation

Aye-aye on a tree

Echolocation is the ability to locate an object by listening to sound waves bouncing off it. The aye-aye uses this method to track down insect larvae inside branches and tree trunks. It will tap the tree with its slender fingers, then rip away the bark and use its elongated middle finger to fish out food, a behavior called percussive foraging. The aye-aye is the only primate to use echolocation.

4. Aye-Ayes Are Solitary Creatures

Nocturnal animals often lead solitary lives, and the aye-aye is no exception. According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), they spend their days sleeping and nights foraging, rarely socializing with other creatures. Although they have been seen foraging in pairs, they have not been observed grooming each other like other primates, and their territories hardly overlap except when males move into a female’s dominion.

5. Scientists Once Thought They Were Rodents

Aye-aye in a tree at night

It took a while before researchers placed the aye-aye in the order Primates. Before that, the critter’s continuously growing incisor teeth — characteristic of rodents — justified its previous position in the order Rodentia, which it shared with beavers, chipmunks, squirrels, muskrats, porcupines, prairie dogs, and marmots.5 Since, it’s been found that the aye-aye’s traits are so different from both rodents and lemurs that the species is now in a family and genus of its own.

6. They Have ‘Pseudothumbs’

According to a 2019 report published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, aye-ayes have an extra digit that could help them grasp objects and grip branches. These “pseudothumbs,” as they’ve been called, are tucked near each wrist and contain bone, cartilage, and three distinct muscles that move them, as well as their own fingerprints. Lead author and associate professor of biological sciences Adam Hartstone-Rose called the aye-aye hand “the craziest hand of any primate,” noting that their fingers look almost like spiders as they move through trees.

7. The Locals Think They’re Evil

The locals think aye-ayes are evil spirits

Cute to some, the sight of a wide-eyed aye-aye — hanging from a jungle tree with its skeletal finger, at night — is enough to freak someone out. It’s no wonder why they’re thought to be unlucky. The Malagasy people have long considered them to be bad omens, summoners of evil, and the innocent aye-ayes are often killed for their unfavorable reputation, too.

8. The Aye-Aye Is in Trouble

Hunting is part of the reason the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) lists aye-ayes as an endangered species. In fact, less than 100 years ago, the critters were thought to be extinct. They became a key focus for conservationists when they were rediscovered in the ’50s, but due to the frequent killing of aye-ayes (to protect crops and defend from their believed “evil spirits”) and the mass destruction of Madagascar forests, they were moved to the endangered category in 2014.

Save the Aye-Aye

  • Support ongoing research and conservation efforts led by the Duke Lemur Center in North Carolina by making a donation.
  • Make a donation or adopt an animal from the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, whose International Training Centre equips Madagascan students with the tools needed to protect aye-ayes and other endangered species at home.

Challenge the stigma associated with aye-eyes by educating people about their important role in the ecosystem.

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