The Denver Zoo has a new star resident, and she’s absolutely gorgeous. In a statement released on September 13, caretakers announced that a female aye-aye was born over a month ago to parents Bellatrix and Sméagol and is now healthy and thriving. She has been named Tonks, after the shape-shifting Harry Potter character.
Though they may not look like it, aye-ayes are a type of primate; more specifically, a species of nocturnal lemur. Known for their unconventional good looks, the tree-dwelling creatures have piercing yellow eyes, giant leathery ears, rodent-like teeth, a coarse coat that tapers into a half-bald head, and strikingly long, claw-tipped fingers, which they use to forage for insects. Sadly, the aye-aye’s unique appearance is part of the reason why their populations are currently endangered.
Malagasy people have a longstanding superstition that the aye-aye is an evil spirit and a portent of death. Folk belief says that the only way to prevent the mark of death that an aye-aye's appearance foretells is to kill it on sight. Today, the species is protected under law, but continued poaching and the increasing destruction of habitats across the island have put them in danger of extinction.
Due to their increasing rarity and reclusive nature, aye-ayes are infrequently spotted in the wild. Thus, researchers trying to learn more about the animals and estimate their abundance must rely heavily on the indirect signs of tree scratch marks, made as the animals tap the wood to check for bugs and scrape them out with their thin middle finger.
The IUCN reports that a population decline of over 50 percent has taken place in the past 30 or so years. However, a number of aye-ayes currently live in captivity. According to the Denver Zoo, there are now 24 aye-ayes in seven zoos across the US, counting Tonks. Worldwide, there are about 50.
Shortly after her birth, Tonks needed some backup care from the veterinarians and staff at the zoo because Bellatrix seemed to be a little unsure of how to parent.
“We noticed that Bellatrix wasn’t showing typical mothering behaviors, so we decided to step in to give Tonks some supportive care,” said lead primate keeper Becky Sturges. “We provided 24-hour care for the first week and had to teach Bellatrix how to nurse, but now she is nursing well and Tonks has gained a lot of weight. Now we’re just monitoring them to make sure things continue to go well.”
Tonks and her mom are now in the same public-facing enclosure as pop Sméagol, but the little one will probably remain out of sight in the nest box for several more months. If she remains on top form, Tonks may grow to 2.3 kilograms (5 pounds) in weight and live for 20 years.