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Night fright: scientists look past an animal's spooky appearances in a quest to protect it.

DID YDU KNDW?

* Animal conservation in the United States has also been affected by folklore. "People still commonly believe that bats can get caught in your hair," says Barbara French of Bats Conservation International. This belief may have stemmed from another myth--that bats are blind. "People often kill bats because of these kinds of myths, making bat conservation more difficult," says French. "[The truth is] bats are not blind. They don't necessarily need their vision to fly or catch insects because they are also able to echolocate."

CRITICAL THINKING:

* What are some animal superstitions commonly believed in your culture? How might these ideas affect conservation efforts?

CROSS-CURRICULAR CDNNECTIONS:

MATH: Compared with its body size, the aye-aye's brain is much larger than the brains of other lemurs. Find the brain size, along with the total body mass, of 10 different animal species. Then, create a bar graph to compare the animals.

RESOURCES

* To learn more about the aye-aye, read this fact sheet from the Duke University Primate Research Center: http://primatecenter.duke.edu/animals/ayeaye/print.php

* Learn how scientists are Wing to protect Madagascar's wildlife at the following Web sites: Madagascar Fauna Group: www.savethelemur.org Madagascar Wildlife Conservation: www.mwc-info.net

Night falls on a village in northeast Madagascar. A dark creature with glowing orange eyes clings to a tree branch. It swivels its bat-like ears, and then uses its long, bony finger to tap the branch. If anybody sees the animal, their village is supposedly destined to experience misfortune.

Just as many people believe that an all-black cat crossing their path is unlucky, the unnerving appearance of an aye-aye (EYE-EYE) can also prompt fears of bad luck. "[Aye-ayes] look spooky, so they have an image of being scary animals," says Elissa Krakauer, a primatologist at Duke University. "But my experience is that they're very gentle."

The aye-aye's off-the-wall looks cause some people to believe that the animal can bring illness or death to a member of their community. In the hopes of avoiding this misfortune, some people will kill the aye-aye.

Does the killing of aye-ayes--an animal found only in the wild in Madagascar (see map, p. 14)--put the species at risk of dying out? "We do not have enough evidence to show if the killing of aye-ayes is happening at a level that endangers the species in general," says Eleanor Sterling, a conservation biologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. But one thing is certain: According to the World Conservation Union, the aye-aye is endangered, or at risk of going extinct.

Habitat loss, in combination with other threats, has made the species vulnerable. In an effort to help save the endangered aye-aye, scientists are trying to learn more about the elusive animal's behavior and how many exist in the wild.

FRIGHT FACTDR

The aye-aye, or Daubentonia madagascariensis (daw-ben-TOE-nee-uh ma-duh-GAS-ker-ee-EN-sis), belongs to a group of primates called lemurs (see Nuts & Bolts, p. 16). Wild lemurs are found only in Madagascar. The animals earned the name "lemur," which is Latin for "spirit of the dead," by spooking early explorers with their glowing eyes and haunting howls.

Adding to its eeriness, the aye-aye is active only at night; the house-cat-size animal is the world's largest nocturnal primate. Its black fur lets it disappear easily into the dark night. And whereas all other known primates have teeth similar to a human's, aye-ayes have teeth which--like a rodent's--never stop growing. But the most unusual part of this creature is its fingers.

KNOCK ON WOOD

The aye-aye's third finger is long and thin--mostly bone and attached bands of tendons covered with skin. The aye-aye taps this slender finger along a branch in search of its favorite food: the larvae, or immature form, of wood-boring insects. As the aye-aye taps, it uses its supersize hairless ears to listen for a hollow sound that would indicate an insect tunnel. When it finds one, the animal gnaws through the wood and pokes its skinny finger into the tunnel to fish out the larvae.

The aye-aye's finger has ball-and-socket joints, like those found in your shoulders and hips, so it's able to bend in all directions. "[Aye-ayes] can bend their finger back all the way against their hand," explains Krakauer. "They can bend the top joint of their finger back and forth too."

MYSTERY CREATURE

Since aye-ayes forage for food at night, they have managed to keep researchers in the dark for years about their living habits. Sterling wanted to learn what they eat and how much space aye-ayes need to survive. So she spent nearly two years tracking them on an island off Madagascar.

Sterling put radio collars on several aye-ayes and followed their signals. "I would track the animals through the night to see what they were doing from when they woke up in the early evening until when they went to bed in the morning," she says. Since aye-ayes spend up to 80 percent of the night on the move and feeding, they kept Sterling on her toes. But it was worth it. Her research has helped conservationists figure out the right sizes and locations for protected reserves, and how to care for captive aye-ayes.

Sterling even got a better idea of the overall numbers of aye-ayes in Madagascar. A few decades ago, scientists thought they were almost extinct, because they were so rarely seen. Sterling's research helped shed light on the elusive aye-aye by identifying clues it leaves behind, even if no one sees the animal. "Now we're able to differentiate between feeding signs of aye-ayes and feeding signs of rodents, or between nests of aye-ayes and nests of other animals," she explains. These clues revealed good news: "[Aye-ayes] are much more widespread than we thought."

Even so, aye-ayes are still endangered. And not just because of the animal's spooky reputation. Rather--as with other lemurs--perhaps the biggest threat to aye-ayes is habitat destruction. When they lose their forest homes to logging or agriculture, aye-ayes turn to coconut, sugarcane, or mango plantations for food. This may lead farmers to kill the animals to protect their crops.

GOOD FORTUNE

Luckily for aye-ayes, they have friends in high places: Many people--from Madagascar and from elsewhere around the world--are working with Madagascar's President, Marc Ravalomanana, to add more protected land to existing reserves. Their goal? To safeguard the gentle creatures, along with other plants and animals.

Also, zoos are making an effort to raise aye-ayes in captivity. But that is proving difficult: Only 32 captive aye-ayes live in 10 facilities around the world. You can find 20 tapping away on branches at the Duke University Primate Center--the only place in North America with aye-ayes.

President Ravalomanana's care, along with that of scientists and conservationists from Madagascar and beyond, is likely to bring good fortune to the aye-aye.

Nuts & Bolts

Lemurs are prosimians, or a type of primate (group of mammals that includes humans, apes, monkeys, and lemurs). Most prosimians have a moist pointed snout and special eyes that reflect light--giving so-called eyeshine to those that are active at night. The aye-aye is the only prosimian to have continually growing teeth and a long, spindly finger--perfect for nabbing the larvae of wood-boring insects.

DIRECTIONS: On a separate sheet of paper, answer the following in complete sentences.

1. Define the following words:

Nocturnal:

Primate:

2. What is the greatest threat to the aye-aye's survival?

3. What is one Way that the aye-aye forages for food? Describe this process.

4. What are some measures for protecting the aye-aye?

ANSWERS

Night Fright

1. Nocturnal: Nocturnal means active at night. Primate: Primate is a mammal group that includes humans, apes, monkeys, and lemurs.

2. The greatest threat to the aye-aye's survival is habitat destruction.

3. The aye-aye taps its long and slender third finger along a branch in search of larvae. As it taps, it uses its oversize, hairless ears to listen for a hollow sound that would indicate an insect tunnel. When it finds one, the animal gnaws through the wood and pokes its skinny finger into the tunnel to fish out the larvae.

4. Scientists are researching the aye-aye, gathering information that could help conservationists figure out the right size and location for protected reserves, and how to care for the animals. Many people are working with Madagascar's President, Marc Ravalomanana, to add more protected land to existing reserves. Also, zoos are making an effort to raise aye-ayes.
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Title Annotation:LIFE PRIMATES
Author:Adams, Jacqueline
Publication:Science World
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 24, 2005
Words:1403
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