Douglas Adams and the Aye Aye
Via my friend Craig, here is a long-lost classic TED talk by the late, great, and much-missed Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and a bunch of other very, very funny books. Adams is beloved by many in the scientific community (Richard Dawkins eulogized him at his funeral a few years ago), not only for his sense of humor but for his acute understanding of science. It’s well worth watching the whole thing:
He begins by telling a long and very story about a visit to Madagascar to search for a highly endangered species of lemur called the aye aye. I have been to Madagascar, and seen a variety of lemurs, but not the aye aye, which is found only on Nosy Mangabey off the north coast of the main island. But for those of you who haven’t seen photos of an aye aye, they’re worth seeing– easily one of the oddest looking animals in the world. (From National Geographic, here):
Below is another photo, which shows a bit more context (from here):
The most interesting thing about the aye aye is the curious shape of its fingers, and in the photo below you can see how specialized they are. The middle finger is especially long and slender, surprisingly so:
This long finger is used to pull grubs out from holes in dead trees; it apparently skewers them much as you’d spear a cocktail sausage with a toothpick. The only other animal to perform this feat to feed itself is a kind of striped possum from New Guinea– and the one thing both these animals have in common is that they live in environments that lack woodpeckers. In the absence of these birds, they exploit the same environmental niche.
All the photos above are from the lovably ugly baby aye ayes. The adults are only slightly less odd looking. Here is a taxidermied specimen from the Field Museum in Chicago:
The superstitions surrounding this animal are particularly interesting. From wikipedia:
The Aye-aye is often viewed as a harbinger of evil and killed on sight. Others believe that should one point its long middle finger at you, you were condemned to death. Some say the appearance of an Aye-aye in a village predicts the death of a villager, and the only way to prevent this is to kill the Aye-aye. The Sakalava people go so far as to claim Aye-ayes sneak into houses through the thatched roofs and murder the sleeping occupants by using their middle finger to puncture the victim’s aorta.
The aye aye, other lemurs, and Gondwana are all figuring prominently in something new and very, very different I am working on these days. It’s a bit of a secret at the moment. But it’s coming.