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Aye-aye, A Superfamily Of Its Own

The aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis) is placed in a family, Daubentoniidae, by itself. It was given its friendly name by the first European to see it, Pierre Sonnerat, from the sound it makes. Looking rather like a squirrel with large eyes, it is about 3 ft (91 cm) long including its bushy tail. It has short, white fur beneath dark brown and white-tipped coarser fur. One of the prime reasons it is placed in a family by itself is that it has only 18 teeth. Instead of a dental comb, it has front incisors that, like a rodent's, grow continuously.

A ring-tailed lemur sits in a tree at the Lowry Park Zoo in Florida. © Mark Phillips, Photo Researchers, Inc. Reproduced with permission

Seen head-on, the aye-aye's face looks triangular, made so by its large pointed ears and sharply pointed nose and chin. The aye-aye's long grasping hands and feet have an extra-long middle finger with a hooked claw. This flexible digit is used clean insects from its fur and as a probe to to scrape insect larvae, especially beetle grubs, from holes in wood. It also uses the claw on its long middle finger as a cup for drinking and for scooping coconut meat out of the shell. Aye-ayes lacks the toilet claw of other lemurs. Aye-aye females apparently breed only every other year or so. They are the only primates that have nipples located on the abdomen instead of on the chest.

A larger aye-aye (D. robusta) became extinct probably less than 1,000 years ago. Daubentonia madagascariensis was thought to be extinct after 1930, but was rediscovered in 1957 in the eastern rainforest. The aye-aye was once considered one of the most endangered mammals in Madagascar, but scientists now believe that it is elusive rather than very rare. The species is found in several protected areas in Madagascar. An uninhabited island, Nosy Mangabe, is a protected reserve for this species. In the 1960s nine aye-ayes were captured and taken to this island, where they have established a small population.

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