This was the catchphrase from a British comedian called Jimmy Wheeler from the 1930’s variety theatre scene, and always finished his act with the phrase: ‘Aye aye, that’s your lot!’. Let’s hope it’s not going to be ‘that’s your lot’ to these little creatures called aye-ayes, as there are only between one and ten thousand of them left in the world – nocturnal primates with the face of a possum, teeth of a mouse, and ears of a bat.

The Aye-Aye, Daubentonia madagascariensis, is a lemur with six long claw-like fingers on each hand, including one extra long middle finger (no sniggering please) for tapping on trees to detect larvae inside the bark, and once located, use that same finger to dig them out. These creatures of the night are fast tappers too, reaching at least seven raps per second while listening with their batlike ears to locate their food source from within the tree. They are the only primates thought to use ‘echolocation’ to find prey, and are known as a ‘percussion forager’. They have an awkward gait when walking around, as these delicate fingers, and particularly the middle finger, are raised to protect them from damage.


These somewhat scruffy-looking nocturnals have large yellow eyes with something called a ‘tapium ludicum’ – a reflective layer at the back of the eye that improves their night vision. Measuring only 30-40 cms long with a thick bushy tail longer than their body, they weigh under 3 kilos. Long, shaggy dark fur with white-tipped guard hairs helps to camouflage them in the dense forest, and when threatened or excited, the aye-aye raises those guard hairs to make themselves look twice their size. Daylight finds aye-ayes high in the trees safely tucked into ball-like nests consisting of interwoven twigs and leaves.

Gnawing Incisors

Aye-ayes have perpetually growing teeth that are worn down by gnawing and were originally classified as rodents for this reason. Able to gnaw through bark to expose the larvae and grubs they live on, they also use them to pry open the hard shells of coconuts, hard fruits, and nuts, then use that unique middle finger to scoop out the pulp or nut meats. In the wild, they will eat wood-boring grubs, fruits, nuts, nectar, seeds, and fungi, and the 50 or so in captivity are fed a diet flavored with fruit, honey or peanut butter, and a variety of fruits and vegetables, nuts, mealworms, sugarcane and tamarind.

Home is Madagascar

This is the fourth-largest island in the world, with a population of over 25 million in an area of 587,040 sq km. Because of its isolated geographic location, it’s home to plants and animals found nowhere else on Earth. The aye-ayes now find their home is shrinking due to forests being cleared for sugar cane, and coconut plantations, and the felling of trees by the logging industry. Once thought extinct, they were rediscovered in 1957, and because their natural habitat is shrinking, they sometimes raid crops and are killed by farmers, with some Malagasy natives considering the aye-aye as an evil omen, often killing them on sight. The name ‘aye-aye’ is believed to come from the phrase ‘I don't know’ in Malagasy, which may be because locals were afraid to speak the name or the sound may be derived from the ‘hai-hai’ vocalization they make when fleeing from danger.


A single offspring is born after a period of up to 172 days, and there is no specific birthing season. Newborns are underdeveloped, weighing a tiny 90-140 g, and spend their first two months protected in the security of the tree nest. Young are weaned at about seven months but stay with the mother for up to two years before going off on their own. Lifespan in the wild is unknown but aye-ayes have lived 23 years in captivity.

Currently, aye-ayes are found in 16 protected areas on Madagascar and there are efforts to breed these unique animals in captivity but are considered to be ‘Near Threatened’ by the IUCN (The International Union for Conservation of Nature).


Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man. 

Marilyn Sheridan