Emma-Louise Nicholls, our Deputy Keeper of Natural History, is looking into the world of the Aye-Aye for her Specimen of the Month series.
A Law unto its Own
The Madagascan Aye-aye is not like the other kids in the playground. Whilst it’s most closely related to lemurs, it’s the only surviving species within its entire scientific family (Daubentoniidae). Awww, sad face.
A curious looking creature, it has the body of a lemur, the ears of a huge bat, the tail of an Ikea toilet brush and the teeth of a well-flossed beaver.
The Aye-aye first became known to western science in the late 1700s, but other than working out which end was the front, scientists didn’t seem to know what to make of it. The first formal description had the Aye-aye classed as a rodent based on the continually growing teeth. Via a brief sojourn into the squirrel family in 1790, it finally arrived in the primate sector in 1850.
Earliest known illustration of an Aye-aye, in the first published account (Sonnerat, 1780). No offense to Sonnerat, but this isn't a remarkable likeness!
Portent of Evil
People across the world are inclined to be suspicious of things that look weird, act strangely, or smell funny. Unfortunately for the Aye-aye, it probably does all three. With its dark wiry fur, ginormous eyes, tarantula-like hands (see below), and secretive nature, the Aye-aye was awarded the title ‘Portent of Evil’ early on by the people of Madagascar, and has been persecuted ever since. In a delightful letter (in an historic context sort of a way) written by Sonnerat, he described the difficulty this caused him in obtaining a specimen:
“I am told that the Aye-aye is an object of veneration at Madagascar, and that if any native touches one, he is sure to die within the year; hence the difficulty of obtaining a specimen. I overcame this scruple by a reward of £10.”
We all know the pre-Brexit pound was worth a whole lot more than it is today, so it is little wonder this was enough to sway a local to ‘dance with the devil’, as it were.
'Is this a spider which I see before me?' The hand of an Aye-aye looks suspiciously like a tarantula to me...
The Walking Dead
After the first formal description was published in 1782, no other western scientist saw hide nor hair of an Aye-aye for the next 70 years. One would clearly lose every time at hide-n-seek with an Aye-aye. As a consequence, it was rumoured that either the Aye-aye had gone extinct, or that the whole thing had been a hoax all along.
In 1844, De Castelle travelled to Madagascar and was successful in not only seeing another Aye-aye but in capturing a live animal. As we western scientists liked to do ‘back in the day’, he caught it, bundled it into a crate, and shipped it off to Europe. Inevitably, the poor thing expired en route.
It wouldn’t be until 1862 that someone would manage to convince an Aye-aye to stay alive for the duration of the journey to England. Although both a male and a female boarded the boat, only the stronger sex survived and the female was subsequently taken to London Zoo where, as of 12th August 1862, she became the first live Aye-aye seen on public display. She even featured in the Illustrated London News in 1862. Due to its incredibly elusive nature, the Aye-aye was again declared extinct in the wild in 1933, until it was re-re-discovered in 1957.
By the way… well-taken photographs of living Aye-ayes will prove that they are actually adorable!
Our Aye-aye specimen was purchased for the Horniman on 24th August 1922, and is on display on the balcony in the Natural History Gallery
ARKive. (No date). Aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis).
Bartlett, A. (1862). Observations of the living aye-aye in the Zoological Gardens. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London. 30 (1) pp.222-223
Brehm, A. B. (1896). The Animals of the World. Brehm’s Life of Animals. Chicago, A. N. Marquis & Company. pp.73-74
EDGE (Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered). (No date). Aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis).
Mittermeier, R. A., Rylands, A. B. Wilson, D. E. eds. (2013). Handbook of the Mammals of the World. 3 Primates. Lynx Edicions pp.952
Natural History Museum. (No date). Joseph Wolf (1820-1899). Drawing overview: The Aye-aye.
Owen, R. (1863). Monograph on the Aye-aye; Chiromys Madagascariensis, Cuvier. London, Taylor and Francis pp. 1-72
Sonnerat, P. (1780). Voyage aux indes orientales et a la chine. Vol IV
Unknown. (6th September 1862). The Aye-aye. The Illustrated London News. pp.256