News Backgrounder: Duke Primate Center Successfully Fosters Mysterious Aye-Ayes

DURHAM, N.C. -- The goggle-eyed, bat-eared little ball of wiry fur was nicknamed "Starvin' Marvin," because he had been rejected by his mother, who had become ill immediately after birth last February.

But the Duke University Primate Center veterinarian and animal technicians resolved that Marvin wouldn't starve for long. They set out to save the little creature, known as an aye-aye, by hand-raising it -- the first time such a full-scale attempt had been made on an infant member of this endangered species.

Their dedicated efforts exemplify the center's hard-won success over the last decade in managing and breeding a creature that easily wins the contest for the strangest primate on earth. The nocturnal aye-aye resembles a cross between a bat, a beaver and a raccoon. It has been compared to a gremlin, a gargoyle, and even the fabled Jabberwocky with its "slithy toves."

So queer is the aye-aye that when it was discovered in the 18th century, zoologists first classified it as a squirrel or even a kangaroo. When they finally realized it was a primate, they gave it a scientific name, Daubentonia madagascarensis, that made it the sole member of its genus.

The aye-aye's eerie appearance -- which led the Duke primatologists to bestow spooky names such as Nosferatu, Poe and Morticia on the animals -- also works against its survival in its homeland of Madagascar. Superstitious Malagasy believe that if an aye-aye points its finger at them, they're doomed to die, so they kill the animals on sight when they encounter them during the day.

True to its patchwork appearance, the aye-aye is a bundle of behavioral contradictions. Its powerful jaws can gnaw through a concrete block wall, yet it is so naturally gentle that when technicians have had the startling experience of an aye-aye inserting its long finger deep into their ear to probe for tasty insects, they have felt only a de

Contact: Dennis Meredith
(919) 681-8054
Duke University

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