Marco comes eye-to-eye with an Aye-aye!
Posted by Marco Tonoli
It is hands down one of the rarest mammals on Earth, as well as being one of the toughest to find in the wilds of Madagascar. In fact, it’s so difficult to find, that in all my travels to its natural habitat, I have only ever seen it once. I walked away with a grainy photo somewhat reminiscent of the old photos of the Loch Ness Monster. But that just tells us a little about its threatened population and discreet behavior.
This is a denizen of the night, lurking high up in the canopies of the rainforest. And for the unprepared eye, a surprise sight of this creature in the dark could easily send the faint of heart running for the hills. In fact, this creature is so bizarre in appearance, that some local cultures believe that if it is seen in a village, the only solution is to burn the village to the ground and relocate. Otherwise, evil omens will befall the villagers.
Now that is quite a fear to hold towards any creature. Am I being somewhat sensationalist? Perhaps a little, but once you see the creature, you can decide for yourself. This is not a big animal, weighing in at around 4 pounds. It has a robust body, covered in dark wiry hair, and a large bushy and somewhat messy tail. It has big ears like an insectivorous bat and a small face with beady forward-facing orange eyes set above a somewhat protruding snout with a fleshy nose. It has large incisors for gnawing through wood. Its digits end in claws, and perhaps one of its most peculiar characteristics, is a middle finger much thinner than its other fingers. This is a very unique trait, with this finger operating on a ball-and-socket-like joint allowing it to pry around in holes looking for food. From a scientific perspective, this animal is so peculiar that it sits entirely alone in its own family. In fact, from its first discovery, it has had scientists baffled as to what it could possibly be related to. Even to this day, there is much debate on the subject.
To emphasize just how rare this animal is, perhaps I should explain just how I managed to have my only ever sighting of this mammal. We were told by our Malagasy trackers that a nesting site had been identified, an entanglement of branches set at the highest point of a tall tree in a thick piece of forest. Being nocturnal, the trackers had identified a very small window of opportunity where the animal comes out of its nest, grooms a little, and then vanishes from sight, after which it is impossible to follow or view. Following this guidance, we waited for the sun to set, and armed with head lamps and filtered torches, we set out on our mission. We were a few hundred meters from the coastline of the Indian Ocean in the early summer. It was a little over 90 degrees Fahrenheit and there was a thick blanket of humidity hanging over us. Under normal circumstances, a pair of shorts, sandals and a light shirt would be the right attire. But we were heading deep into the forest, which was set upon an ancient limestone karst formation, easily identified by its sharp and jagged edges. This was also mosquito country, so the shorts and sandals remained in camp, and we were kitted out in heavy boots, long trousers, long-sleeved shirt and cap. This was the perfect combinations to test out how efficiently our sweat glands functioned, and I can confirm, they worked well.
Following our trackers, we scrambled through the thick forest, pushing our way through the undergrowth, peeling spiderwebs off our faces as we navigated the treacherous karst formation. Once we arrived at our site, our trackers pointed out our tree where the nest had been made. At this point, it was nothing more than a waiting game. We turned off all our lights, tried to find a comfortable rock, one without razor sharp edges at least, and followed the instruction to remain silent. There we sat, perspiration running down our faces, the hum of nocturnal insect life filling the silence, and the excited anticipation of seeing one of the planet’s weirdest animals. The occasional light came on to check the site, and I had glimpses of our motley group of travelers. I was amazed that under the conditions we were in, there was not the slightest sign of wavering.
Then, all of a sudden there was an excited raised whisper from a tracker. There was an electric energy that ran through everyone as it became apparent that this might actually happen. We huddled close together and peered up into the canopy. We saw a rustle of branches just next to the nest site. The lights went off again, and I could hear the excitement in everyone’s breathing. Then seconds later, the light was on, and there it was! Hands down the most bizarre terrestrial mammal I have every seen. The Aye-aye!
It did indeed live up to its reputation as one of the weirdest looking creatures. But, in its own right, a remarkable little creature. It casually looked down at us and began scratching its ear. This gave me a brief opportunity to raise my camera and snap off just one burst. Then it was off. And that was it. I actually think the brief duration of the sighting added to the feeling of absolute privilege to have seen this animal in the wild, and wild it will always be.