Tamsin Woolley-Barker, PhD.

The Biomimicry Manual: What Can the Aye-Aye Teach Us About Echolocation?

biomimicry, The Biomimicry Manual, aye-aye, lemur, Madagaqscar, echolocation, bioinspired design, swis army knife, yoda, gollum, Dobby

You know bats and dolphins ‘echolocate’ to find their prey, sending out blips of squeaky SONAR-like sound waves that bounce off fish or moths in the dark. And people do it, too, using expensive equipment. But how about a monkey? The aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis) is certainly no ordinary monkey. In fact, its not a monkey at all, but a highly specialized lemur from the island of Madagascar.


This bizarre creature resembles some mythical chimera from the realm of the dead. Think of Yoda’s scruffy cousin, mated with Harry Potter‘s Dobby the House-Elf, and more than a pinch of Gollum thrown in for good measure. He’s the world’s largest nocturnal primate, and the only placental mammal to find food by echolocating with his fingers.

Under cover of complete darkness, the aye-aye drums his way through the forest, tapping trunks and branches up to eight times a second with his grotesquely elongated toes. When his outsized foxy ears detect a juicy larvae-packed hollow, he deftly gnaws a hole with his rat-like incisors, then drills and pokes his spindly middle finger in to fish out the grubs. It’s like poking a tiny appetizer fork into a bulb of roasted garlic head. Essentially, the aye-aye fills the same ecological niche as a woodpecker.

biomimicry, The Biomimicry Manual, aye-aye, lemur, Madagaqscar, echolocation, bioinspired design, swis army knife, yoda, gollum, Dobby

The slim third toe is the tapper, and the long fourth toe is the skewer. The local people have thought up other uses for this veritable Swiss Army Knife, claiming the aye-ayes sneaks into homes through the roof-thatch, murdering sleeping inhabitants by puncturing their aorta. Others believe that if the aye-aye points his narrowest finger at them, they are marked for death.

Our fellow non-human earthlings have spent millions of years perfecting their crafts, and each has their own suite of perfectly efficient, eco-friendly, and multi-purpose innovations. This is biomimicry—a way of designing that explicitly looks to nature for long-term sustainable ideas. After all, the ones that got it wrong are extinct! But sadly, many of these champion survivors are now in trouble, and the aye-aye is one of these. In 1933 they were thought to be extinct, then rediscovered 15 years later. Loss of habitat to farming is a big problem for them, but local superstition is another. Seeing one of these evil soul-sucking spirits foreshadows death, and the only way to prevent it is to kill the animal on sight, and hang the corpse as a warning. The aye-aye’s inadequate revenge is urinating on their oppressors from the treetops.

What can we learn from these amazing but threatened creatures? Maybe we can invent echolocating walking sticks for the blind? Or improve methods of detecting objects, like ultrasounds or SONAR. And how about their all-in-one five-finger tool? Can we learn something from that? I, for one, would like an aye-aye inspired garlic fork.

+ The Biomimicry Manual

An evolutionary biologist, writer, sustainability expert, and passionate biomimicry professional in the Biomimicry 3.8 BPro certification program, Dr. Tamsin Woolley-Barker blogs at BioInspired Ink and serves as Content Developer for the California Association of Museums‘ Green Museums Initiative. She is working on a book about organizational transformation inspired by nature.

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