Even for naturalists, Aye-aye has been a nightmare. When they first encountered Her in the 18th century, nobody could determine what Aye-aye was. Because of her bushy-tail and chisel-like teeth, Aye-aye was believed to be a squirrel. Later naturalists said that She was marsupial, although they could not find a pouch. Finally, scientists determined that Aye-aye was a specialized lemur, the only survivor of her family – the Daubentoniidae. (This makes Her a prosimian, a forerunner of monkeys.)
On Madagascar, Aye-aye takes the role of a woodpecker. (Among the mammals, only She and the striped possum uses percussive foraging.) Tapping with her long bony finger, Aye-aye searches for beetle larvae moving about in the tree bark. No one is sure whether the tapping disturbs the beetles or simply allows Her to locate them. Once She finds the grub, Aye-aye chisels a hole with her rodent-like teeth. Then inserting her middle finger, She scoops out the bug and eats it.
Building nests at the forks of trees, Aye-aye will have several throughout her territory. Although She lives by Herself, Aye-aye will tolerate other aye-ayes whose territories overlap Hers. When She is not using her nests, other Aye-aye may sleep in them. This makes it difficult for naturalists to determine the actual population of aye-ayes.
Many stories abound about how Aye-aye received her distinctive name. Some claim that it comes from one of her distress calls. Others say that it is her Malagasy name, “hay-hay,” which is probably Malagasy for “I don’t know.”
Because the people of Madagascar believe that Aye-aye can be an evil presence, they dislike saying her name. Whomever She points her middle finger at will die. A fearless animal, Aye-aye spooks people by simply walking into the middle of their villages. They usually respond by killing Her and hanging her corpse as a warning for other aye-ayes.
However, there are Malagasy people who believe that Aye-aye brings good luck. Since She was once human, Aye-aye will bless people. Sometimes, She will make a grass cushion for a sleeping village. Placing the pillow under their head, She brings them wealth.
Aye-aye has always been a puzzle for people. Few could figure out what She is or how She came to be called “Aye-aye.” She confounds people and their expectations. Therefore, they have opposite reactions to Her. Aye-aye lives by her own rules of self-determination and magic.
Drawing by Joseph Wolf