This is the first glimpse of one of the most unusual and threatened lemurs in the world – born at Bristol Zoo Gardens.
It is an aye-aye and although it arrived almost two months ago it has been kept out of sight by its mother until now.
Aye-ayes are nocturnal and are famed for having an extended middle finger which they use to find food inside logs and trees.
Senior Mammal Keeper Paige Bwye, who took these remarkable pictures, said: “I went to check on the aye-ayes and I saw these two bright, dark eyes peering at me and I knew immediately it was the new infant.
“Our eyes locked on each other. It was a very special moment for me because I had also been the first to see its mother, Tahiry, who was born at the Zoo five years ago.
“I kept thinking ‘Please don’t move before I can get a picture’, and I was able to get close enough to capture these.
“Tahiry came out to see what was happening but we have such a good relationship with her that she was quite happy with me being there.”
Five-year-old Tahiry gave birth to the infant in Twilight World where she lives with her mate, Peanut, who is four and came from London Zoo in 2019.
Keepers at the Zoo had heard the little aye-aye making squawking sounds for weeks, but Tahiry kept it completely out of sight.
Paige said: “She built a narrow corridor around the inside edge of the nest box from wood-wool and bamboo. It wound its way into the centre where she made an elaborate nest with a roof. None of the keepers could see inside.“
She said keepers do not yet know the sex of the little aye-aye, but they estimate it is about 30cms long and probably weighs about 400gms.
The birth of the infant is important because aye-ayes are classified as endangered in their native Madagascar – the only place where lemurs are found in the wild. Their forest homes are being destroyed by people for agriculture and timber. In some areas they are also killed on the belief that they are a symbol of bad luck.
Paige said: “This is a huge success for Bristol Zoo and the European aye-aye breeding programme.
“We are one of only a few zoos in the United Kingdom to have aye-ayes and the global captive population is only around 50, so every birth is really important.”
Aye-ayes have evolved to feed rather like woodpeckers. At night they clamber around dead trees and tap the bark with their skeletal middle finger listening for the sound of grubs moving.
Then they use their sharp teeth to tear at the wood and fish out the grubs with their extended finger.
Paige said in some pictures one of the infant’s ears has flopped over its eyes. When born aye-ayes are unable to hold their ears up, but ‘grow into’ their ears at a couple of months old.
But she said: “Although it can only crawl at the moment it is doing very well and Tahiry is being a brilliant mum, especially as this is her first infant.”
Tahiry will feed the new aye-aye for about seven months, but she has already started taking food to eat in front of the infant so it can learn how to tackle solids.
She said it will be three years before the newest aye-aye at Bristol Zoo Gardens will be fully grown.
Bristol Zoological Society has been working in northern Madagascar since 2006 and is involved in building a new research centre in the country, allowing conservationists to study lemurs in their natural habitat, and to ultimately help save them from extinction.
The Society has recently been awarded funding to continue its work protecting lemur species which live in trees planted to provide shade for cacao plantations.
In addition, the Bristol Zoological Society team is continuing to evaluate reforestation efforts inside Sahamalaza-Iles Radama National Park, its long-term field site.
This year they hope to create a permanent tree nursery to grow saplings and help establish natural corridors for lemur species such as the blue-eyed black lemur and Sahamalaza sportive lemur.
The aim is to help bridge gaps and encourage lemurs to move between the forest fragments within the national park to develop larger areas and allow growth of lemur populations.
The Society, which operates Bristol Zoo Gardens and Wild Place Project, launched an appeal last May to ensure the future of its work ‘saving wildlife together’.
The Society, which is a registered charity, launched the BZS Appeal following the temporary closure of both its sites in Bristol in the face of the Covd-19 pandemic. To find out more about the appeal, or to make a donation, visit bristolzoo.org.uk/bzsappeal.
To find out more about Bristol Zoological Society’s conservation projects, visit bristolzoo.org.uk/save-wildlife/conservation-and-research