Picking your nose is a very undesirable behavior in humans. But we’re not the only primates who have this supposedly bad habit: orangutans, capuchin monkeys, chimpanzees – at least a dozen animals have been observed doing so. The aye-ayes, native to Madagascar, have recently joined the club of popping primates. Researcher Anne-Claire Fabre, curator of mammals at the Natural History Museum in Bern and scientific partner at the Natural History Museum in London, has filmed for the first time one of the nocturnal animals picking its nose.
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Handy middle finger: Aye-ayes use it to forage for food
Aye-ayes have a handy tool for this: Evolution has given them a long, thin middle finger, which is a full eight centimeters long on the filmed animal, like the Natural History Museum’s on Thursday published videos and pictures demonstrate. Not bad at all for an animal with a body length of up to 44 centimeters. They usually use the middle finger to rhythmically tap wood. The omnivores can use the acoustic reverberation to locate their prey – including longhorn beetle larvae – and fish them out with their fingers.
With their long middle finger, the finger animals can also penetrate very deeply into the nose. A CT scan of the ayes-ayes shows the animal using it to reach its neck. There it collects mucus, which the aye-aye then licks off its finger.
Ayes-Ayes collect mucus in their throats when they gobble, which they then lick off with their long middle finger.
© Source: Renaud Boistel/Natural History Museum
Studies: Boogers could improve the immune system and oral hygiene
Fabre, who caught the animal picking its nose at the Duke Lemur Center in North Carolina, is certain this is more than just a one-off behavior. However, it is still unclear why aye-ayes and some other primates pop. “Almost all of the papers on this were written for fun. There are some serious studies in the field of psychology, but there are few for biologists,” she said in one Message. Some studies have already suggested that popping – more specifically, the absorption of mucus – could play an important role in the immune system and also prevents bacteria from building up on teeth.
Aye-aye in danger of extinction: “They really need our help”
Aside from this potentially positive benefit, the middle finger of the Aye-Ayes is both a blessing and a curse. According to folklore, the aye-aye have an undeserved reputation for being harbingers of death. According to legend, if they point their long middle finger at a person, they will kill them. This is of course just a fairy tale, but for this reason they were often killed as soon as they were sighted. Their habitat is also endangered in the course of deforestation due to the increased sugar cane and coconut plantations in Madagascar.
“Aye-Ayes are critically endangered, they really need our help,” emphasizes Fabre. She hopes research like hers could raise awareness about the animals and show how little we know about them.