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Aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Taxonomic History & Nomenclature

Common names

  • Aye-aye, hay-hay, ahay, and aiay (EAZA 2011)
  • Etymology
    • Lemur from the Latin word lemures meaning "ghosts or specters" (Gotch 1995)
      • Supposed to derive from the animals' nocturnal habits and stealthy movements (Gotch 1995)
    • Aye-aye (pronounced as 'high high' or 'hay hay') from the Malagasy name aiay for the species; several proposed origins for the name (Gotch 1995; Richardson 1885; Simons 1995)
      • Early report suggests derivation from the animal's peculiar cry; unlikely as no known vocalizations resemble this sound (Richardson 1885; Simons 1995)
      • Suggestion that Malagasy people cried out "aiee!-aiee!" in fright when shown the animal (Simons 1995)
      • Proposal that the name is a derivation of the Malagasy heh heh or hey hey meaning "I don't know"
        • Suggests that the Malagasy people either did not have a name for the animal or did not wish to speak its name because it is fady/taboo (Simons 1995)

Scientific name

  • Etymology
    • Genus Daubentonia named after the French zoologist, Louis J.M. Daubenton, who discovered the animal in 1780 (Gotch 1995)
    • Specific epithet madagascariensis named after the island nation Madagascar, on which it is endemic
  • Historical classification of the species is confused
    • Originally identified as a rodent by Gmelin in 1788 (Owen 1863)
      • Variably assigned as a relative of squirrels (Sciurus), and jerboas (desert rodents of Asia and North Africa) until the mid 19th century (Owen 1863; Schwitzer et al. 2013; Winn 1989)
    • First ascribed to a primate lineage in 1800, by Schreber (Winn 1989)
      • Lemur psilodactylus (ITIS 2014; Tattersall 1982)

Evolutionary History

Lemur origins

  • Lemur divergence
    • Split of lemurs and lorisiformes (lorises and pottos; small arboreal primates of Africa and Asia) (Hovarth et al. 2008)
    • 66.9-84.4 million years ago (Mya)
  • Malagasy lemurs
    • Ancestral lemurs arrive on Madagascar; after separation of the island from other landmasses (Hovarth et al. 2008)
      • Open ocean isolates Madagascar from Africa and India
      • 50-80 Mya: ancestral lemurs arrive on Madagascar; after separation of the island from other landmasses (Hovarth et al. 2008)

Malagasy lemur diversity and divergence (from Mittermeier et al. 2010 unless otherwise noted)

  • Diversity
    • Account for >15% of extant (living) primate diversity (Hovarth et al. 2008)
    • 5 major lemuriform lineages; all descended from a single common ancestor (Hovarth et al. 2008; Yoder and Yang 2004)
      • Daubentoniidae: represented by the aye-aye; 1 genus
      • Indriidae: indris, sifakas, and their relatives; 19 species in 3 genera
      • Lepilemuridae: sportive lemurs; 26 species in 1 genus
      • Cheirogaleidae: dwarf and mouse lemurs; 30 species in 5 genera
      • Lemuridae: true and bamboo lemurs; 25 species in 5 genera
  • Origin estimates for major lineages
    • Daubentonia ancestors arise early in lemur evolution (Hovarth et al. 2008; Yoder and Yang 2004)
      • 1st to diverge, c. 54.9-74.7 Mya
      • Sister group to all other lemurs (Hovarth et al. 2008; Schwitzer et al. 2013)
    • Indriidae diverged c. 30.33-42.4 Mya, followed by Lepilemuridae c. 18.62-29.05 Mya (Hovarth et al. 2008)
    • Lemuridae and Cheirogaleidae began to diversify around the same time (Hovarth et al. 2008)
      • c. 18.6-29 Mya

Genus Daubentonia

  • 1 extant (living) species; 1 extinct species
  • Recently extinct giant aye-aye (D. robusta) (Feistner and Carroll 1993)
    • Fossil remains found in a few locations in southwestern Madagascar (Mittermeier et al. 2010; Quinn and Wilson 2004)
      • Include 4 incisors, a tibia, and postcranial material (Quinn and Wilson 2004)
      • Date to the late-Holocene, likely within the last 2,000 yrs (Feistner and Carroll 1993)
    • 2.5-5 times larger than its living relative (Simons 1994)
      • Estimated mass of D. robusta c. 6.7-13.5 kg (15-30 lb) (Mittermeier et al. 2010; Quinn and Wilson 2004)
    • Dental similarities suggest similar diets (Mittermeier et al. 2010)
    • Cause for extinction unclear, though evidence suggests humans hunted the animal (Mittermeier et al. 2010)

Cultural History

Malagasy mythology and lore

  • Regional cultural beliefs
    • Capture of the animal believed to cause illness or death (Andriamasimanana 1994; Richardson 1885)

Popular culture resources

  • Books
    • The Aye-Aye and I (1992) by G. Durrell
      •  Details the journey of Gerald Durrell's search for the elusive aye-aye and his efforts to establish a captive breeding colony
    • Ako the Aye-Aye (2005) by A. Joll
      • Children's book written in Malagasy and English, weaves the story of an aye-aye mother and her son, Ako
    • Adventures of Riley: Mission to Madagascar (2005) by A. Lumry
      • Story of a young boys search for the elusive aye-aye and his encounters with other amazing creatures he meets along the journey
    • This Book Belongs to Aye-Aye (2011) by R. Byrne
      • Picture book, tells comical story of an aye-aye and his classmates attending the Academy for Aspiring Picture Book Animals
  • Videos
    • Madagascar series (2005, 2008, 2012) produced by DreamWorks
      • A 'fish out of water' story of four Central Park Zoo animals shipwrecked on the island of Madagascar and their encounters with the island's native species including an aye-aye named Maurice
    • Nature's Miracle Babies: Episode 3: Aye-aye of the Beholder (2011), produced by BBC from executive producer S. Ford
      • Episode segment focuses on captive breeding of aye-ayes at Duke Lemur Center

Persecution by humans

  • Human driven population decline and extinction
    • Hunting and habitat destruction threaten modern aye-aye populations (Andriaholinirina et al. 2014)
    • Human arrival to Madagascar coincides with population decline and extinction of many lemurs (Mittermeier et al. 2010; Richard 1991)
      • 17 species, roughly 15% of all known species, have been extirpated (Mittermeier et al. 2010)
        • Loss of 8 genera and 3 families, no longer represented in the island's fauna (Mittermeier et al. 2010)
        • Historically, large-bodied species encountered greater extinction risk (Richard 1991)


Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Infraclass: Eutheria

Order: Primates

Suborder: Strepsirrhini (prosimians: lemurs, galagos, and lorises)

Superfamily: Lemuroidae (Malagasy lemurs)

Family: Daubentoniidae (aye-ayes)

Genus: Daubentonia (Saint-Hilaire, 1795)

Species: Daubentonia madagascariensis (Gmelin, 1788) - aye-aye

Classification according to ITIS 2014; Schwitzer et al. 2013; Tattersall 2006

Portrait of an Aye-aye

a drawing of an Aye-Aye

The Aye-aye. Illustration by Joseph Wolf, in: Owen, R. (1863) Monograph on the Aye-aye (Chiromys madagascarensis, Cuvier). Taylor and Francis : London. 72pp. Originally believed to be a rodent, the aye-aye has intrigued scientists since it was first described in 1788. Confusion stemmed from its large, chisel-like incisors which grow continuously. It was 12 years before examination of skeletal features led to a proposed reclassification as a primate.

Image from Natural History Museum London. Public domain (European Union and U.S.)

Page Citations

Andriaholinirina et al. (2014)
Andriamasimanana (1994)
EAZA (2011)
Feistner and Carroll (1993)
Gotch (1995)
Gove (1993)
Hovarth et al. (2008)
ITIS (2014)
Mittermeier et al. (2010)
Owen (1863)
Quinn and Wilson (2004)
Richard (1991)
Richardson (1885)
Schwitzer et al. (2013)
Simons (1994)
Simons (1995)
Tattersall (1982)
Tattersall (2006)
Winn (1989)
Yoder and Yang (2004)

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