Bizarre aye-aye primates take nose picking to the extreme

By | November 1, 2022

Aye-ayes are true champions of nose picking.

A new video offers the first evidence that these nocturnal lemurs of Madagascar stick their fingers up their noses and lick off the mucus. They don’t use just any finger for the job, either. The primates go spelunking for snot with the ultralong, witchy middle finger they typically use to find and fish grubs out of tree bark.

A reconstruction of the inside of an aye-aye’s head based on CT scans shows that this spindly digit probably pokes all the way through the animal’s nasal passages to reach its throat, researchers report online October 26 in the Journal of Zoology.  

“This is a brilliant example of how science can serve human curiosity,” says Michael Haslam, a primate archaeologist based in London who was not involved in the new work. “My first take was that it’s a cool — and a bit creepy — video, but [the researchers] have gone beyond that initial reaction of ‘What on Earth?’ to actually explore what’s happening inside the animal.”

The new footage stars Kali, a female aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis) at the Duke Lemur Center in Durham, N.C. “The aye-aye stopped eating and started to pick its nose, and I was really surprised,” says evolutionary biologist Anne-Claire Fabre, who filmed the video. “I was wondering where the finger was going.” An aye-aye is about as big as a house cat, but its clawed middle finger is some 8 centimeters long. And Kali was plunging almost the entire digit up her snout to sample her own snot with dainty licks.

“There is one moment where the camera is [shaking], and I was giggling,” says Fabre, of the Natural History Museum of Bern in Switzerland. Afterward, she asked her colleagues if they had ever seen an aye-aye picking its nose. “The ones that were working a lot with aye-ayes would tell me, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s happening really often,’” says Fabre, who later witnessed the behavior in several other aye-ayes.

A reconstruction of the internal structure of an aye-aye’s head, based on CT scans, reveals that when the primate picks its nose, the tip of the long middle digit probably reaches the back of the throat.From left: © Renaud Boistel; © David Haring/Duke Lemur Center

This got Fabre and her colleagues curious about how many other primate species have been caught with their fingers in their nostrils. The researchers scoured the literature for past studies and the internet for other videos documenting the behavior.

Unfortunately, “most of the literature that we were finding were jokes,” Fabre says. “I was really surprised, because there is a lot of literature on other types of pretty gross behaviors, such as coprophagy,” or poo eating, among animals (SN: 7/19/21). But between all the bogus articles, the team did find some real reports of primate nose picking, including research done by Jane Goodall in the 1970s.

Aye-ayes are now the 12th known species of primate, including humans, to pick their noses and snack on the snot, the researchers found. Others include gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans and macaques. Nose pickers tend to be primates that have especially good dexterity and use tools. 

“The team [has] given us the first map of nose picking across our primate family tree, which immediately raises questions about just how much of this behavior is happening out there, unseen or unreported,” Haslam says. He remembers once seeing a capuchin monkey using a twig or stem to pick its nose (SN: 9/6/15).

“I’m surprised that there aren’t more reports on nose picking, especially from zoos where animals are watched every day,” Haslam adds. “Perhaps our own social stigma around it means that scientists are less likely to want to report nose-picking animals, or it may even be seen as too common to be interesting.”

This aye-aye, named Kali, was caught on camera sticking her extra-long, skinny middle finger up her nose and then licking off the snot — making her kind the 12th known species of primate to eat their own boogers. 

The fact that so many primate species have been spotted picking their noses and eating the boogers makes Fabre’s team and Haslam wonder whether this seemingly nasty habit has some unknown advantage. Perhaps eating germ-laden boogers boosts the immune system.

For now, untangling the evolutionary origins and potential perks of nose picking will require a more complete census of what species — primate or otherwise — mine and munch on their own mucus.