Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The Aye-Aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis)

Let’s face it, most of us have self-image problems, but nothing like those that must afflict the aye-aye. The hapless omnivore is in decline at least partly because it is quite likely to be killed because of the way it looks. A harsh fate, indeed, but there’s no doubt that the aye-aye is one of the strangest creatures on the planet.

Early naturalists had trouble making up their minds just what species it belonged to, and for a while believed it to be a rodent, because of its huge front teeth. In the end they gave up and awarded it a genus of its own, so it’s official - there’s nothing else like the aye-aye.

The aye-aye is scruffily be-furred, with huge, bat-like ears, a bushy tail and eyes like saucers. A piece of evolutionary whimsy has given it an unnaturally long and thin middle finger, up to three times as long as the others. The animal uses this elongated digit to tap the tree bark to locate grubs and insects and then hook them out, having first chewed a hole with those impressive front teeth.

As if the destruction of its habitat wasn’t enough to contend with, the aye-aye falls foul of the same fady which, at least in theory, afford the indri some protection. For the aye-aye, however, it’s all bad news.

To a degree the creature brings it on itself, because apart from anything else it can be a bloody nuisance. Like many other Madagascan animals it has too much self-confidence for its own good. It will stroll nonchalantly into a village and help itself to coconuts, mangoes, lychees or even eggs. No wonder the Malagasy view it with irritation.

But it’s much, much worse than that. In most rural areas on the island the aye-aye is thought to be a harbinger of evil which should be killed on sight. Reactions to the creature can be extreme. The Sakalava people, allegedly, believe that aye-ayes sneak into houses at night and murder the sleeping occupants by using that long, thin middle finger to stop their hearts.

Garbutt reports that in some areas, if an aye-aye enters a village the response is to kill the animal, burn down the village and move on. A harsh fate, one might think, for a creature whose only crime is to look like a large squirrel that’s been shot from a cannon.

For all its uniqueness, Madagascar’s wildlife is facing the many of the same problems as endangered species all over the world. Agricultural techniques which worked without too much damage to the environment when there were fewer people are proving disastrous now that the island’s population is approaching 20 million.