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Endangered Aye-Aye Born at Duke Lemur Center


The Duke Lemur Center recently welcomed an endangered baby Aye-aye. The female is the first Aye-aye born at the Duke Lemur Center in six years, and she is one of only 24 of her kind in the United States.

Third-time mom, Medusa, gave birth on June 7, and the infant has been named “Agatha” after prolific mystery writer, Agatha Christie.

Mother and baby have been kept behind the scenes, giving Agatha a chance to gain strength. Born weighing a mere 74 grams, Agatha was only two thirds the typical birth weight for her species so early care was given round-the-clock.

Cathy Williams (Veterinarian at the Duke Lemur Center for 21 years) stated in a Duke Lemur Center article: “Agatha was a unique case. She required intervention by the veterinary staff to provide supplemental warmth and formula until she gained enough strength that she could return to her mom full time.”

Between feedings, veterinary staff used a “baby cam” to monitor interactions between Agatha and Medusa. The staff reports that the big-eared infant, now three months old, is thriving. According to Steve Coombs, Agatha’s primary technician, “She’s tapping branches. She sleeps with Medusa in the nest box, and the interaction I see is mostly nursing. She’s calm, and Medusa is back to her easygoing self.”



4_DSC2756EDSHP2_Dm-7279-agatha-675x540_cPhoto Credits: Duke Lemur Center / David Haring

The Aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis) is a lemur that is native to Madagascar. It combines rodent-like teeth that perpetually grow and a special thin middle finger.

It is known as the world's largest nocturnal primate, and is characterized by its unusual method of finding food. The Aye-aye taps on trees to find grubs, then gnaws holes in the wood using its forward slanting incisors to create a small hole in which it inserts its narrow middle finger to pull the grubs out. This foraging method is called “percussive foraging.” The only other animal species known to find food in this way is the Striped Possum.

The Aye-aye is currently classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Logging, slash-and-burn agriculture, and hunting are suspected to have cut their numbers in half in recent decades.

Some villagers in Madagascar believe these lemurs are evil omens and can curse a person by pointing their middle fingers at them; hence many Aye-ayes in their native territory are killed on sight. According to Cathy Williams from Duke Lemur Center, “They’re not at all aggressive, they’re extremely curious and energetic and they’re very intelligent. They learn very quickly.”

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ (AZA) Species Survival Plan (SSP) deemed Agatha’s parents, Medusa and Poe, a good genetic match.

Poe arrived at the Duke Lemur Center from Madagascar in 1987. He was one of the first Aye-ayes ever imported to the United States. At the time, Poe and seven additional animals imported by Duke between 1987 and 1991 represented the only Aye-ayes in the world under human care.

Today, all but one of the Aye-ayes in North America (as well as others overseas in London, Frankfurt, Bristol and the Jersey Channel Islands) are descendants of these eight founders.

Agatha is the third Aye-aye born in North America in the last two years. Her birth is a welcome development for the Duke Lemur Center, which tragically lost four adults last year to poisoning from a natural toxin found in avocados, not previously recognized as a threat to lemurs.

Agatha will stay with her mother for two to three years while she learns how to forage for food, build a nest, and other Aye-aye survival skills.

Visitors won’t be able to see baby Agatha yet, but they can see two of the Center’s other Aye-ayes, Endora and Ozma.