The native people of Madagascar have many strange superstitions and customs. ‘Do not sing while you are eating or your teeth will grow long’ is one of them; another is ‘do not point at a tomb or else your finger will fall off’. Most, while undoubtedly eccentric, are largely harmless, but that’s not always the case.
Madagascar is home to many unusual creatures found nowhere else in the world, including perhaps its most famous inhabitants, the lemurs. But no discussion of lemurs would be complete without a mention of the animal that encapsulates all that is weird and wonderful about Madagascan wildlife, the aye-aye.
The Madagascan people view the aye-aye as a harbinger of evil and death, and it’s not hard to see why. With its cat-like body, huge bat ears, giant bulbous orange eyes, a balding face, beaver-like teeth and oversized squirrel tail, this strange (and not very good-looking) lemur appears as though it has been assembled from the leftover bits of other animals. It certainly baffled taxonomists for years, who at first classified it as a type of rodent thanks to its continuously-growing teeth.
Perhaps the most curious features of the aye-aye, however, are its gremlin-like hands, each of which has a grotesquely long and tapered middle finger. The animal comes out at night (it’s the largest nocturnal primate in the world) and uses these fingers to tap on the bark of a tree. Its excellent hearing informs it whether there is a hollow cavity beneath the bark. If there is, there is probably a delicious wood-boring insect larva inside. The aye-aye then chews a hole in the wood using its sharp teeth and inserts one of those long, double-jointed middle fingers inside to try and pry the larva out.
It is thanks to the animal’s appearance and spindly fingers that it is surrounded by so much superstition. Ancient Malagasy legend states that the aye-aye is a symbol of death, and is viewed as a bad omen by many natives. Some tribes claim that an aye-aye will enter a hut in a village and kill its inhabitants by puncturing the arteries in their chest using its long finger; others believe that if an aye-aye points at you with its middle finger then you are sure to die soon unless you kill the animal first.
Due to this unfortunate bad press, the aye-aye is often killed on sight by superstitious locals. When killed, they may be hung from branches so that the ‘evil spirits’ within are carried away by travellers. In the more extreme cases, entire villages are burnt to the ground and then rebuilt after an aye-aye has stepped foot in one of its buildings.
It’s a sorry state of affairs when an animal cannot live without its evolutionary adaptations – in this case, its elongated fingers – and yet at the same time cannot live with them. Hopefully the Madagascan people will realise that just because an animal is extremely ugly, it doesn’t mean that it has to be an incarnation of an evil spirit. Goodness knows what they would think about the babirusa…