Overview

Brief Summary

Taxonomy

Cryptoprocta ferox belongs to the Mammalian order Carnivora, meaning ‘flesh-eating’.Cryptoprocta means ‘hidden in the hinder parts’. This refers to an anal pouch containing a gland that secretes foul-smelling fluid (Gotch, 1979). This pouch also conceals the anus (Kohncke, 1986).The name ferox refers to its exaggerated reputation of being fierce (Gotch, 1979).The vernacular name ‘fossa’ or ‘foussa’ is a Malagasy name and is often confused with the generic name of Fossa fossana, the Malagasy civet. The 2 are not closely related (Nowak, 2005). The vernacular name may also be spelt as ‘fosa’ (Kohncke, 1986).The taxonomy of the Malagasy carnivores is problematic and the classification for Cryptoprocta ferox is still in debate (Wilson, 2005).

Morphology
Cryptoprocta ferox has several features similar to the Felidae. The dentition is characteristic of advanced carnivores - the carnassials are enlarged and there is one reduced upper molar. The skull has a shortened braincase and enlarged orbits (Ewer 1973).

Scent glands
The anal scent glands produce a pungent odour when the animal is aggravated (Nowak, 2005).Cryptoprocta ferox also has chest glands that fully develop upon sexual maturity. They are larger in males and secretions are more active during the breeding season (Ewer, 1973).See video footage of the fossa scent marking on the Arkive website.

Claws
Cryptoprocta ferox is plantigrade and the retractile claws are short, sharp and curved (Nowak, 2005).See video footage of the fossa grooming on the Arkive website.

Pelage
The fur is short, dense, soft and usually red-brown but occasionally black.Malagasy people originally thought this variation represented different species but it is more widely accepted that the colouration is melanistic.The vibrissae (whiskers) are especially pronounced and are as long as the head (Kohncke, 1986), (Nowak, 2005).
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Introduction

Cryptoprocta ferox is the largest carnivore on Madagascar and has been described as having the appearance of a small cougar or a jaguarondi, due to its rounded ears, cat-like body and long tail (Nowak, 2005).The name Cryptoprocta means ‘hidden in the hinder parts’. This refers to an anal pouch containing a gland that secretes foul-smelling fluid (Gotch, 1979). This pouch also conceals the anus (Kohncke, 1986).The name ferox refers to its exaggerated reputation of being fierce (Gotch, 1979).These animals are terrestrial and arboreal (Hawkins, 2008) - they are excellent climbers and extremely agile when moving through trees (Nowak, 2005).
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Biology

Fossas are active during the day and night and, with the exception of the breeding season, they are generally solitary (6). Both males and females occupy territories, which are scent marked with anal gland secretions, and vary in size depending on the abundance of prey species (6). Fossas have an extremely unusual mating system, a receptive female will occupy a tree below which males congregate, fighting and calling to the female (2). Over the period of a week the female will mate with a number of different males, and copulation bouts can sometimes last for over 2.5 hours (4). A new female then arrives and replaces the original one, mating with the gathered males in her turn (2). The mating season runs from September to November, and between 2 and 4 young are born in a den three months after copulation (6). The young are initially blind and helpless, opening their eyes after 15 days; they remain with their mother until they are 15 - 20 months old (4). Fossas feed on a wide variety of small mammals, birds and reptiles (4). In high mountain areas, small mammals such as tenrecs feature heavily in the diet, whilst in forest areas lemurs can make up more than 50% of prey items (7). The fossa's long tail provides balance for pursing this agile prey through the trees (2), and pairs may cooperate to catch larger prey (6).
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Description

The fossa is the largest carnivore in Madagascar and superficially resembles an elongate cat in appearance (2). The tail is almost as long as the slender, muscular body, and the fossa's coat is short and reddish-brown in colour (4). The head is fairly small, with a short muzzle and prominent ears (6). Unlike other members of the Viverridae family, the fossa walks on the soles of its feet; a method of locomotion known as 'plantigrade'. The short, retractable claws also enable efficient tree climbing (4). One of the more unique peculiarities of the fossa is the fact that adolescent females go through a 'masculinisation' phase during their development; the clitoris becomes enlarged and covered in spines thus resembling the male penis, and there is an orange secretion on their underbelly which is usually only seen in mature males (2).
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Comprehensive Description

Biology behaviour

Biology
Cryptoprocta ferox is the largest carnivore on Madagascar and has been described as having the appearance of a small cougar or a jaguarondi, thanks to its rounded ears, cat-like body and long tail (Nowak, 2005).It grows to the following sizes:
  • head and body length: 610–800mm
  • tail: 610–800mm
  • shoulder height: 370mm
  • adult weight: 7–12kg
(Nowak, 2005)

Behaviour
Cryptoprocta ferox are solitary except during breeding season. They are usually nocturnal and crepuscular, although may occasionally be seen during the day (Kohncke, 1986), (Nowak, 2005).

Breeding
Cryptoprocta ferox breed in September–October (Kohncke, 1986).They have an unusual mating system in which a single female will occupy a tree and mate with several males, sometimes repeatedly, over 1 or more days.The same site is occupied for several days with females sequentially replacing each other. Cryptoprocta ferox have been observed to use the same tree as a traditional site for mating (Hawkins, 2009).Gestation is approximately 3 months and young are born blind and toothless but furred (Kohncke, 1986). Litters range in size from 2 – 4 young (Nowak, 2005). The eyes open at 12 days old and they begin to eat solids at 90 days (Ewer, 1973).The young leave the den after 4.5 months and are then weaned.Sexual maturity is thought to occur at 4 years (Nowak, 2005).See video footage of the fossa's breeding behaviour and a female fossa chasing off an unwanted male, on the Arkive website.
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Distribution

Range Description

This species has a wide distribution in less disturbed forests of Madagascar. It is absent from areas where forests have been cleared (e.g. the central high plateau). It is found from sea level up to around 2,600 m asl on the Andringitra Massif (Hawkins 2003).
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Geographic Range

Fossas are found throughout forested areas of Madagascar.

Biogeographic Regions: ethiopian (Native )

Other Geographic Terms: island endemic

  • Nowak, R. 1999. Walker's Mammals of the World. Vol I. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
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Range

Endemic to Madagascar, the fossa is found throughout the island. In the Central Highlands however, it is only known from certain areas, such as the Andringitra Massif (7).
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Physical Description

Morphology

Physical Description

Fossas are cat-like in appearance, with blunt noses and large, forward-facing eyes. Total body length ranges from 610 to 800 mm, with a tail of matching length. Shoulder height is typically 370 mm. Fossas have vibrissae that are as long as their heads, and are covered in short, thick fur of a reddish-brown color, although there are sometimes black individuals. They have short, curved, retractile claws and a plantigrade stance (Nowak 1999). Anal and preputial glands can be found. Males have a large baculum, a barb on the glans of the penis, and are slightly larger than females. They have rounded ears. Teeth are shorter and fewer in number (32 to 36) than other viverrids (Schliemann 1989). The generic name, Cryptoprocta, comes from the fact that the anus ("procta") is hidden ("crypto") by an anal pouch (Kohncke & Leonhardt 1986).

Range mass: 7 to 12 kg.

Range length: 610 to 800 mm.

Other Physical Features: endothermic ; homoiothermic; bilateral symmetry

Sexual Dimorphism: male larger

  • Kohncke, M., K. Leonhardt. 1986. Cryptoprocta ferox. No. 254: Mammalian Species.
  • Schliemann, H. 1989. Viverrids. Pp. 510-556 in S Parker, ed. Grzimek's Encyclopedia of Mammals. Vol 3. New York: McGraw-Hill.
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Ecology

Habitat

Habitat and Ecology

Habitat and Ecology
This species is found both arboreal and terrestrial. It is found in all less disturbed forest types thoughout the island. Additionally, this species may be found above the treeline in montane areas (Goodman 1996). In general, it is not found outside of intact forest habitat, but it may pass through nonforest habitat as transient individuals. Its diet is known to include most animals in forests it inhabits, including lemurs to the size of Diademed Sifaka (bodyweight ~3 kg), rodents and reptiles (Rasolonandrasana 1994; S.M. Goodman and L. Dollar, unpubl.; F. Hawkins pers. comm.). Lemurs are frequently caught in trees. The gestation period is six to seven weeks after which between two and four young are born (Hawkins 2003); since infants remain with the mother for the first year, females only breed every other year. Sexual maturity is reached at three or four years of age (Hawkins 2003) and it is maximum known age in captivity is more than 20 years. It is active equally throughout the day and night (cathemeral), with periods of inactivity in the hottest and coldest parts of the day or night.

Systems
  • Terrestrial
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Fossas inhabit all forested areas on the island of Madagascar. They range from the coastal lowlands to mountainous areas up to 2000 meters in elevation.

Range elevation: 2000 (high) m.

Habitat Regions: tropical ; terrestrial

Terrestrial Biomes: savanna or grassland ; forest ; rainforest ; scrub forest

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Inhabits the majority of Malagasy forest types, up to elevations of around 2,000 metres above sea level (5).
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Trophic Strategy

Food Habits

Fossas are the largest mammalian carnivores on the island of Madagascar. Their diet consists of small mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and insects. Fossas also prey on lemurs (Lemuridae). They are excellent climbers and will pursue lemurs through the trees.

Animal Foods: birds; mammals; amphibians; reptiles; insects

Primary Diet: carnivore (Eats terrestrial vertebrates)

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Associations

Ecosystem Roles

Fossas are the top, mammalian predators on Madagascar. They impact the populations of many species of small mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians.

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Predation

Fossas are top predators on Madagascar. Their main predators are humans. Young fossas may fall prey to large snakes or birds of prey, although this is not documented. Fossas are cryptically colored and secretive.

Known Predators:

Anti-predator Adaptations: cryptic

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Known prey organisms

Cryptoprocta ferox preys on:
Microcebus rufus
Mungotictis decemlineata
Hypogeomys antimena

This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
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General Ecology

Distribution ecology

This species is endemic to Madagascar (Wilson, 2005).

Habitat
Cryptoprocta ferox inhabit a variety of regions from coastal lowlands to mountainous areas of up to 2,600m but are usually only found inhabiting forested areas. They may be found passing through non-forested habitat (Hawkins, 2008).They are terrestrial and arboreal (Hawkins, 2008) - they are excellent climbers and extremely agile when moving through trees (Nowak, 2005).See video footage of the fossa climbing in trees on the Arkive website.

Nutrition
Cryptoprocta ferox was originally thought to prey exclusively on lemurs, but is now known to have a varied and opportunistic diet. They are adept at hunting both on the ground and in the trees (Goodman et al 2004). They feed on:
  • smaller mammals (including lemurs up to around 3kg)
  • birds
  • insects
  • amphibians
  • reptiles
(Hawkins, 2008; Nowak, 2005).See video footage of the fossa feeding on the Arkive website.
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Life History and Behavior

Behavior

Communication and Perception

Fossas have keen vision, hearing, and smell. They mark their territories with secretions from their scent glands and may use chemical cues to communicate reproductive status.

Communication Channels: visual ; acoustic ; chemical

Other Communication Modes: scent marks

Perception Channels: visual ; acoustic

  • Haltenorth, T., H. Diller. 1980. A Field Guide to the Mammals of Africa, Including Madagascar. London: Collins.
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Life Expectancy

Lifespan/Longevity

While the life span of fossas has not been studied in the wild, one specimen lived twenty years in captivity (Kohncke & Leonhardt 1986).

Range lifespan

Status: captivity:
20 (high) years.

Average lifespan

Status: captivity:
20.0 years.

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Lifespan, longevity, and ageing

Maximum longevity: 23.1 years (captivity) Observations: In captivity, these animals may live up to 23.1 years (Richard Weigl 2005).
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Reproduction

Aggression among males may occur during the mating season, including threatening calls and postures, which lead to fights where each contestant tries to bite the other. Copulation can occur on the ground or on a horizontal branch. To signify her readiness to mate, the female lifts her hindquarters and turns her external genitalia inside out about two to three centimeters. The male then mounts her and bites the back of her neck. The period of copulation lasts up to 165 minutes (Schliemann 1989).

Mating occurs in September and October, and young are born in a den in December and January after a three month gestation period. At birth the two to four young weigh 100 grams each. They are altricial, being toothless and blind, but furred (Kohncke & Leonhardt 1986). At four and a half months a young fossa is weaned and ventures out of the den (Nowak 1999). The young fossa leaves its mother when it reaches fifteen to twenty months of age, have adult teeth at 2 years old and attain full adult size at four years of age (Schliemann 1989, Nowak 1999).

Breeding interval: Fossas breed once yearly.

Breeding season: Mating occurs in September and October.

Range number of offspring: 2 to 4.

Average gestation period: 3 months.

Average weaning age: 4.5 months.

Range time to independence: 15 to 20 months.

Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; seasonal breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); viviparous

Average birth mass: 100 g.

Average gestation period: 90 days.

Average number of offspring: 3.

Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)

Sex: female:
1496 days.

Young are cared for and nursed by females in the den until they are weaned. They are further protected until they become independent, at from 15 to 20 months old.

Parental Investment: altricial ; pre-fertilization (Provisioning, Protecting: Female); pre-hatching/birth (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female); pre-weaning/fledging (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female); pre-independence (Protecting: Female)

  • Nowak, R. 1999. Walker's Mammals of the World. Vol I. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Kohncke, M., K. Leonhardt. 1986. Cryptoprocta ferox. No. 254: Mammalian Species.
  • Schliemann, H. 1989. Viverrids. Pp. 510-556 in S Parker, ed. Grzimek's Encyclopedia of Mammals. Vol 3. New York: McGraw-Hill.
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Conservation

Conservation Status

IUCN Red List Assessment


Red List Category
VU
Vulnerable

Red List Criteria
A2cd

Version
3.1

Year Assessed
2008

Assessor/s
Hawkins, A.F.A. & Dollar, L.

Reviewer/s
Hoffmann, M. (Global Mammal Assessment Team) & Duckworth, J.W. (Small Carnivore Red List Authority)

Contributor/s

Justification
listed as Vulnerable as it is feasible that over the course of the last 21 years (three generations), there has been population reduction exceeding 30% (and possibly much higher) mainly due to habitat loss (given the species' need for intact forest) and in combination with widespread hunting and persecution and the effects of feral carnivores.

History
  • 2000
    Endangered
  • 1996
    Vulnerable
  • 1994
    Insufficiently Known
    (Groombridge 1994)
  • 1990
    Insufficiently Known
    (IUCN 1990)
  • 1988
    Insufficiently Known
    (IUCN Conservation Monitoring Centre 1988)
  • 1986
    Vulnerable
    (IUCN Conservation Monitoring Centre 1986)
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Fossas are widely hunted, and their habitat is constantly being enroached upon by humans. Fossas were upgraded from "vulnerable" to "endangered" by the IUCN in 2000 based on estimates that only 2500 individuals survive in increasingly fragmented habitat.

US Federal List: no special status

CITES: appendix ii

IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: vulnerable

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Conservation

This species is listed on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List as vulnerable with a decreasing population trend. It is thought that numbers have decreased by a third in the past 21 years.It is listed on appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Threats
Humans pose the main threat to Cryptoprocta ferox. They are hunted and persecuted because of their exaggerated reputation as being fearsome, and their role as a pest - they are known to hunt poultry and are said to attack hogs and oxen.There is also considerable superstition associated the species (Hawkins, 2008), (Pickrell, 2005).This species' habitat is threatened due to collection of firewood and conversion to agricultural land, and is being fragmented due to selective logging (Hawkins, 2008).Cryptoprocta ferox has no natural predators but is predated by feral dogs (Hawkins, 2008). Diseases such as rabies that are transmitted by introduced animals also threaten the species (Pickrell, 2005).
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Status

Classified as Endangered (EN – C2a) on the IUCN Red List 2002 (1), and listed on Appendix II of CITES (3).
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Population

Population
The Fossa is generally a solitary species that is found at low population densities (Hawkins 2003). Density estimates for the Menabe region are 0.26 individuals/km² (Hawkins 1998), and for Ankarafantsika 0.20/km² (Rahajanirina 2003). In a recent estimate incorporating 25 protected areas large enough to support a (not necessarily viable) population, current population size is at <2,500 (Hawkins and Racey 2005). The maximum estimated population size for the largest protected area in Madagascar (Masoala National Park) is 414 breeding adults, and this is likely to be a substantial overestimate. Metapopulations of more than this may be possible, given the ability of this species to range between forest patches. Connectivity of populations between distant forest fragments is not yet conclusively known.

Densities for the eastern forests are hypothesized by some to be at one-third that of the west, based on phototrapping and cage trapping efforts throughout the humid forests (L. Dollar, unpubl.). Subjective encounter rate is much higher in western forests (particularly in Menabe, Bemaraha and Ankarana reserves) than in rainforests (F. Hawkins unpubl.), but densities could well be similar between dry and humid forests. This is an important point for future investigation. Important factors may include densities of lemur prey species, and levels of hunting.

Population Trend
Decreasing
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Threats

Major Threats
The major threat to this species is loss and fragmentation of forest habitat, largely caused by the conversion of forested areas to agricultural land and pasture and selective logging. It also preys on domestic fowl and is consequently killed as a pest species by local people. It is very susceptible to hunting, and is often targeted by groups engaged in collective group hunting (e.g. in the Makira forests) specifically for the purpose of eradication. Parts of this species are also used for medicinal purposes. Competition with feral carnivores also occurs, including predation by feral dog packs.
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Recent surveys have revealed the fossa population on Madagascar to be fewer than 2,500 individuals (1). Habitat loss is one of the main causes of decline, and fragmented populations become isolated in remaining forest patches (1). Probably the most important threat to survival however, comes from local farmers who regard fossas as serious predators of poultry (1).
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Management

Conservation Actions

Conservation Actions
This species is listed on Appendix II of CITES. It is present in many protected areas throughout Madagascar (such as Kirindy Forest, and Ranomafana, Masaola, and Ankarafantsika National Parks). It is the subject of a successful ex situ captive breeding programme. Better protection of intact forests and awareness programmes concerning the value of this species for pest control are needed. This species is not currently protected adequately under national legislation, as there are conflicts within national legislation, as well as within and between local community laws.
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Conservation

Fossas are protected in a number of Madagascan reserves; they are found within the Ankarana and Analamera Special Reserves, and within the Ranomafana, Andasibe-Mantadia and Montagne d'Ambre National Parks (6). A successful captive breeding programme has also been established (1), and it is hoped that these measures will be sufficient to secure the future of one of Madagascar's most enigmatic and fascinating mammals.
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Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems

Benefits

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Among humans, fossas have an exaggerated reputation for savagery and destruction. They do sometimes prey upon domestic poultry, and there have even been accounts of attacks on oxen and goats, but these are rare and their veracity may be questionable.

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Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Fossas are fascinating members of a unique Malagasy mammalian radiation. They are charismatic animals and are important in ecotourism.

Positive Impacts: ecotourism ; research and education

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Wikipedia

Fossa (animal)

This article is about the animal with the common name fossa. For the taxonomic genus Fossa, see Malagasy civet. For other uses, see Fossa (disambiguation).

The fossa (/ˈfɒsə/ or /ˈfsə/;[4] Malagasy [ˈfusə̥]; Cryptoprocta ferox) is a cat-like, carnivorous mammal that is endemic to Madagascar. It is a member of the Eupleridae, a family of carnivorans closely related to the mongoose family (Herpestidae). Its classification has been controversial because its physical traits resemble those of cats, yet other traits suggest a close relationship with viverrids (most civets and their relatives). Its classification, along with that of the other Malagasy carnivores, influenced hypotheses about how many times mammalian carnivores have colonized the island. With genetic studies demonstrating that the fossa and all other Malagasy carnivores are most closely related to each other (forming a clade, recognized as the family Eupleridae), carnivorans are now thought to have colonized the island once around 18 to 20 million years ago.

The fossa is the largest mammalian carnivore on the island of Madagascar and has been compared to a small cougar. Adults have a head-body length of 70–80 cm (28–31 in) and weigh between 5.5–8.6 kg (12–19 lb), with the males larger than the females. It has semi-retractable claws and flexible ankles that allow it to climb up and down trees head-first, and also support jumping from tree to tree. The fossa is unique within its family for the shape of its genitalia, which share traits with those of cats and hyenas.

The species is widespread, although population densities are usually low. It is found solely in forested habitat, and actively hunts both by day and night. Over 50% of its diet consists of lemurs, the endemic primates found on the island; tenrecs, rodents, lizards, birds, and other animals are also documented as prey. Mating usually occurs in trees on horizontal limbs and can last for several hours. Litters range from one to six pups, which are born blind and toothless (altricial). Infants wean after 4.5 months and are independent after a year. Sexual maturity occurs around three to four years of age, and life expectancy in captivity is 20 years. The fossa is listed as "Vulnerable" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). It is generally feared by the Malagasy people and is often protected by their fady (taboo). The greatest threat to the species is habitat destruction.

Etymology[edit]

The genus name Cryptoprocta refers to how the animal's anus is hidden by its anal pouch, from the Ancient Greek words crypto- "hidden", and procta "anus".[5] The species name ferox is the Latin adjective "fierce" or "wild."[6] Its common name is spelled fossa in English or fosa in Malagasy, the Austronesian language from which it was taken,[5][7] but some authors have adopted the Malagasy spelling in English.[3] The word is similar to posa (meaning "cat") in the Iban language (another Austronesian language) from Borneo, and both terms may derive from trade languages from the 1600s. However, an alternative etymology suggests a link to another word that comes from Malay: pusa refers to the Malayan weasel (Mustela nudipes). The Malay word pusa could have become posa for cats in Borneo, while in Madagascar the word could have become fosa to refer to the fossa.[7]

Taxonomy[edit]

The fossa was formally described by Edward Turner Bennett on the basis of a specimen from Madagascar sent by Charles Telfair in 1833.[8] The common name is the same as the generic name of the Malagasy civet (Fossa fossana), but they are different species. Because of shared physical traits with civets, mongooses, and cats (Felidae), its classification has been controversial. Bennett originally placed the fossa as a type of civet in the family Viverridae, a classification that long remained popular among taxonomists. Its compact braincase, large eye sockets, retractable claws, and specialized carnivorous dentition have also led some taxonomists to associate it with the felids.[9] In 1939, William King Gregory and Milo Hellman placed the fossa in its own subfamily within Felidae, the Cryptoproctinae. George Gaylord Simpson placed it back in Viverridae in 1945, still within its own subfamily, yet conceded it had many cat-like characteristics.[5][10]

The fossa has a cat-like appearance, resembling a small cougar.[5]

In 1993, Géraldine Veron and François Catzeflis published a DNA hybridization study suggesting that the fossa was more closely related to mongooses (family Herpestidae) than to cats or civets.[9][10] However, in 1995, Veron's morphological study once again grouped it with Felidae.[10] In 2003, molecular phylogenetic studies using nuclear and mitochondrial genes by Anne Yoder and colleagues showed that all native Malagasy carnivorans share a common ancestry that excludes other carnivores (meaning they form a clade, making them monophyletic) and are most closely related to Asian and African Herpestidae.[11][12][13] To reflect these relationships, all Malagasy carnivorans are now placed in a single family, Eupleridae.[1] Within Eupleridae, the fossa is placed in the subfamily Euplerinae with the falanouc (Eupleres goudoti) and Malagasy Civet, but its exact relationships are poorly resolved.[1][11][13]

An extinct relative of the fossa was described in 1902 from subfossil remains and recognized as a separate species, Cryptoprocta spelea, in 1935. This species was larger than the living fossa (with a body mass estimate roughly twice as great), but otherwise similar.[5][14] Across Madagascar, people distinguish two kinds of fossa—a large fosa mainty ("black fossa") and the smaller fosa mena ("reddish fossa")—and a white form has been reported in the southwest. It is unclear whether this is purely folklore or individual variation—related to sex, age or instances of melanism and leucism—or whether there is indeed more than one species of living fossa.[5][14][15]

Phylogeny of Eupleridae within Feliformia[13]
Feliformia 

(other feliforms)




Viverridae (civets, genets, and their relatives)




Hyaenidae (hyenas)




Herpestidae (mongooses)




Eupleridae (Malagasy carnivores)







Phylogeny of Malagasy carnivorans (Eupleridae)[11]
Eupleridae 

Cryptoprocta

C. ferox (Fossa)



C. spelea (giant fossa)




Fossa (Malagasy civet)




Eupleres




Galidia (ring-tailed mongoose)




Galidictis




Salanoia



Mungotictis (narrow-striped mongoose)






Description[edit]

The fossa appears as a diminutive form of a large felid, such as a cougar,[15] but with a slender body and muscular limbs,[9] and a tail nearly as long as the rest of the body.[15] It has a mongoose-like head,[9] relatively longer than that of a cat,[15] although with a muzzle that is broad[9] and short,[15] and with large but rounded ears.[5][15] It has medium brown eyes set relatively wide apart with pupils that contract to slits. Like many carnivorans that hunt at night, its eyes reflect light; the reflected light is orange in hue.[9] Its head-body length is 70–80 cm (28–31 in) and its tail is 65–70 cm (26–28 in) long. There is some sexual dimorphism, with adult males (weighing 6.2–8.6 kg or 14–19 lb) being larger than females (5.5–6.8 kg or 12–15 lb).[15] Smaller individuals are typically found north and east on Madagascar, while larger ones to the south and west.[5] Unusually large individuals weighing up to 20 kg (44 lb) have been reported, but there is some doubt as to the reliability of the measurements.[15] The fossa can smell, hear, and see well. It is a robust animal and illnesses are rare in captive fossas.[16]

Cranium (dorsal, ventral, and lateral views) and mandible (lateral and dorsal views)

Both males and females have short, straight fur that is relatively dense and without spots or patterns. Both sexes are generally a reddish-brown dorsally and colored a dirty cream ventrally. When in rut, they may have an orange coloration to their abdomen from a reddish substance secreted by a chest gland secretions, but this has not been consistently observed by all researchers. The tail tends to be lighter in coloration than the sides. Juveniles are either gray or nearly white.[5][15]

Several of the animal's physical features are adaptions to climbing through trees.[9] It uses its tail to aid in balance and has semi-retractable claws that it uses to climb trees in its search for prey.[15] It has semiplantigrade feet,[5] switching between a plantigrade-like gait (when arboreal) and a digitigrade-like one (when terrestrial).[17] The soles of its paws are nearly bare and covered with strong pads.[5] The fossa has very flexible ankles that allow it to readily grasp tree trunks so as to climb up or down trees head first or to leap to another tree.[9] Captive juveniles have been known to swing upside down by their hindfeet from knotted ropes.[9]

The fossa has several scent glands, although the glands are less developed in females. Like herpestids it has a perianal skin gland inside an anal sac which surrounds the anus like a pocket. The pocket opens to the exterior with a horizontal slit below the tail. Other glands are located near the penis or vagina, with the penile glands emitting a strong odor. Like the herpestids, it has no prescrotal glands.[5]

External genitalia[edit]

One of the more peculiar physical features of this species is its external genitalia. The male fossa has an unusually long penis and baculum (penis bone),[18] reaching to between his forelegs when erect, with an average thickness of 20 mm (0.79 in). The glans extends about halfway down the shaft and is spiny except at the tip. In comparison, the glans of felids is short and spiny, while that of viverrids is smooth and long.[5] The female fossa exhibits transient masculization, starting at about 1–2 years of age, developing an enlarged, spiny clitoris that resembles a male's penis. The enlarged clitoris is supported by an os clitoridis,[15][19] which decreases in size as the animal grows.[17] The females do not have a pseudo-scrotum,[15] but they do secrete an orange substance that colors their underparts, much like the secretions of males.[20] Hormone levels (testosterone, androstenedione, dihydrotestosterone) do not seem to play a part in this transient masculization, as those levels are the same in masculinized juveniles and nonmasculinized adults. It is speculated that the transient masculization either reduces sexual harassment of juvenile females by adult males, or reduces aggression from territorial females.[15] While females of other mammal species (such as the spotted hyena) have a pseudo-penis,[21] no other is known to diminish in size as the animal grows.[20]

Comparison with related carnivorans[edit]

Overall, the fossa has features in common with three different carnivoran families, leading researchers to place it and other members of Eupleridae alternatively in Herpestidae, Viverridae, and Felidae. Felid features are primarily those associated with eating and digestion, including tooth shape and facial portions of the skull, the tongue, and the digestive tract,[5] typical of its exclusively carnivorous diet.[9] The remainder of the skull most closely resembles skulls of genus Viverra, while the general body structure is most similar to that of various members of Herpestidae. The permanent dentition is 3.1.3-4.13.1.3-4.1 (three incisors, one canine, three or four premolars, and one molar on each side of both the upper and lower jaws), with the deciduous formula being similar but lacking the fourth premolar and the molar. The fossa has a large, prominent rhinarium similar to that of viverrids, but has comparatively larger, round ears, almost as large as those of a similarly sized felid. Its facial vibrissae (whiskers) are long, with the longest being longer than its head. Like some mongoose genera, particularly Galidia (which is now in the fossa's own family, Eupleridae) and Herpestes (of Herpestidae), it has carpal vibrassae as well. Its claws are retractile, but unlike those of Felidae species, they are not hidden in skin sheaths. It has three pairs of nipples (one inguinal, one ventral, and one pectoral).[15][5]

Habitat and distribution[edit]

The fossa has the most widespread geographical range of the Malagasy carnivores, and is generally found in low numbers throughout the island in remaining tracts of forest, preferring pristine undisturbed forest habitat. It is also encountered in some degraded forests, but in lower numbers. Although the fossa is found in all known forest habitats throughout Madagascar, including the western, dry deciduous forests, the eastern rainforests, and the southern spiny forests,[22] it is seen more frequently in humid than in dry forests. This may be because the reduced canopy in dry forests provides less shade, and also because the fossa seems to travel more easily in humid forests.[9] It is absent from areas with the heaviest habitat disturbance and, like most of Madagascar's fauna, from the central high plateau of the country.[22]

The fossa has been found across several different elevational gradients in undisturbed portions of protected areas throughout Madagascar. In the Réserve Naturelle Intégrale d'Andringitra, evidence of the fossa has been reported at four different sites ranging from 810 to 1,625 m (2,657 to 5,331 ft).[23] Its highest known occurrence was reported at 2,000 m (6,600 ft);[24] its presence high on the Andringitra Massif was subsequently confirmed in 1996.[23] Similarly, evidence has been reported of the fossa at the elevational extremes of 440 m (1,440 ft) and 1,875 m (6,152 ft) in the Andohahela National Park.[25] The presence of the fossa at these locations indicates its ability to adapt to various elevations, consistent with its reported distribution in all Madagascar forest types.[22]

Behavior[edit]

Fossa are active both day and night (cathemeral).

The fossa is active during both the day and the night and is considered cathemeral; activity peaks may occur early in the morning, late in the afternoon, and late in the night.[15] The animal generally does not reuse sleeping sites, but females with young do return to the same den.[15] The home ranges of male fossas in Kirindy Forest are up to 26 km2 (10 sq mi) large, compared to 13 km2 (5.0 sq mi) for females. These ranges overlap—by about 30% according to data from the eastern forests—but females usually have separated ranges. Home ranges grow during the dry season, perhaps because less food and water is available. In general, radio-collared fossas travel between 2 and 5 kilometres (1.2 and 3.1 mi) per day,[26] although in one reported case a fossa was observed moving a straight-line distance of 7 km (4.3 mi) in 16 hours.[15] The animal's population density appears to be low: in Kirindy Forest, where it is thought to be common, its density has been estimated at one animal per 4 km2 (1.5 sq mi) in 1998.[9] Another study in the same forest between 1994 and 1996 using the mark and recapture method indicated a population density of one animal per 3.8 km2 (1.5 sq mi) and one adult per 5.6 km2 (2.2 sq mi).[27]

Except for mothers with young and occasional observations of pairs of males, animals are usually found alone, so that the species is considered solitary.[5][9][27] A 2009 publication, however, reported a detailed observation of cooperative hunting, wherein three male fossas hunted a 3 kg (6.6 lb) sifaka (Propithecus verreauxi) for 45 minutes, and subsequently shared the prey. This behavior may be a vestige of cooperative hunting that would have been required to take down larger recently extinct lemurs.[28]

Fossas communicate using sounds, scents, and visual signals. Vocalizations include purring, a threatening call,[5] and a call of fear, consisting of "repeated loud, coarse inhalations and gasps of breath".[9] A long, high yelp may function to attract other fossas. Females mew during mating and males produce a sigh when they have found a female.[5][9] Throughout the year, animals produce long-lasting scent marks on rocks, trees, and the ground using glands in the anal region and on the chest.[5][9][15] They also communicate using face and body expression, but the significance of these signals is uncertain.[5] The animal is aggressive only during mating, and males in particular fight boldly. After a short fight, the loser flees and is followed by the winner for a short distance.[5] In captivity, fossas are usually not aggressive and sometimes even allow themselves to be stroked by a zookeeper, but adult males in particular may try to bite.[16]

Diet[edit]

The fossa is a carnivore that hunts small to medium-sized animals. One of eight carnivorous species endemic to Madagascar, the fossa is the island's largest surviving endemic terrestrial mammal and the only predator capable of preying upon adults of all extant lemur species,[26][29] the largest of which can weigh as much as 90% of the weight of the average fossa.[9][29] Although it is the predominant predator of lemurs,[29][30] reports of its dietary habits demonstrate a wide variety of prey selectivity and specialization depending on habitat and season; diet does not vary by sex. While the fossa is thought to be a lemur specialist in Ranomafana National Park,[31] its diet is more variable in other rain forest habitats.

The fossa's diet includes small- (gray mouse lemur, above) to medium-sized (diademed sifaka, below) mammals.

The diet of the fossa in the wild has been studied by analyzing their distinctive scats, which resemble gray cylinders with twisted ends and measure 10–14 cm (3.9–5.5 in) long by 1.5–2.5 cm (0.6–1.0 in) thick.[32] Scat collected and analyzed from both Andohahela and Andringitra contained lemur matter and rodents. Eastern populations in Andringitra incorporate the widest recorded variety of prey, including both vertebrates and invertebrates. Vertebrates consumed ranged from reptiles to a wide variety of birds, including both understory and ground birds, and mammals, including insectivores, rodents, and lemurs. Invertebrates eaten by the fossa in the high mountain zone of Andringitra include insects and crabs.[23][25] One study found that vertebrates comprised 94% of the diet of fossas, with lemurs comprising over 50%, followed by tenrecs (9%), lizards (9%), and birds (2%). Seeds, which comprised 5% of the diet, may have been in the stomachs of the lemurs eaten, or may have been consumed with fruit taken for water, as seeds were more common in the stomach in the dry season. The average prey size varies geographically; it is only 40 grams (1.4 oz) in the high mountains of Andringitra, in contrast to 480 grams (17 oz) in humid forests and over 1,000 grams (35 oz) in dry deciduous forests.[15] In a study of fossa diet in the dry deciduous forest of western Madagascar, more than 90% of prey items were vertebrates, and more than 50% were lemurs. The primary diet consisted of approximately six lemur species and two or three spiny tenrec species, along with snakes and small mammals.[32] Generally, the fossa preys upon larger lemurs and rodents in preference to smaller ones.[33]

Prey is obtained by hunting either on the ground or in the trees. During the non-breeding season the fossa hunts individually, but during the breeding season hunting parties may be seen, and these may be pairs or later on mothers and young. One member of the group scales a tree and chases the lemurs from tree to tree, forcing them down to the ground where the other is easily able to capture them.[15] The fossa is known to eviscerate its larger lemur prey, a trait that, along with its distinct scat, helps identify its kills.[29] Long-term observations of the fossa's predation patterns on rainforest sifakas suggest that the fossa hunts in a subsection of their range until prey density is decreased, then moves on.[34] The fossa has been reported to prey on domestic animals, such as goats and small calves, and especially chickens. Food taken in captivity includes amphibians, birds, insects, reptiles, and small- to medium-sized mammals.[5]

This wide variety of prey items taken in various rainforest habitats is similar to the varied dietary composition noted[23][25] occurring in the dry forests of western Madagascar, as well. As the largest endemic predator on Madagascar, this dietary flexibility combined with a flexible activity pattern[26] has allowed it to exploit a wide variety of niches available throughout the island,[23][25] making it a potential keystone species for the Madagascar ecosystems.[22]

Breeding[edit]

Fossa illustration circa 1927

Most of the details of reproduction in wild populations are from the western dry deciduous forests; determining whether or not certain of these details are applicable to eastern populations will require further field research.[15] Mating typically occurs during September and October,[5] although there are reports of its occurring as late as December,[15] and can be highly conspicuous.[9] In captivity in the Northern Hemisphere, fossas instead mate in the northern spring, from March to July.[16] Intromission usually occurs in trees on horizontal limbs about 20 m (66 ft) off the ground. Frequently the same tree is used year after year, with remarkable precision as to the date the season commences. Trees are often near a water source, and have limbs strong enough and wide enough to support the mating pair, about 20 cm (7.9 in) wide. Some mating has been reported on the ground as well.[15]

As many as eight males will be at a mating site, staying in close vicinity to the receptive female. The female seems to choose the male she mates with, and the males compete for the attention of the female with a significant amount of vocalization and antagonistic interactions. The female may choose to mate with several of the males, and her choice of mate does not seem to have any correlation to the physical appearance of the males.[15] To stimulate the male to mount her, she gives a series of mewling vocalizations. The male mounts from behind, resting his body on her slightly off-center,[15] a position requiring delicate balance; if the female were to stand, the male would have significant difficulty continuing. He places his paws on her shoulders[9] or grasps her around the waist and often licks her neck.[15] Mating may last for nearly three hours.[20] This unusually lengthy mating is due to the physical nature of the male's erect penis, which has backwards-pointing spines along most of its length.[20] Fossa mating includes a copulatory tie,[15] which may be enforced by the male's spiny penis.[20] The tie is difficult to break if the mating session is interrupted.[15] Copulation with a single male may be repeated several times, with a total mating time of up to fourteen hours, while the male may remain with the female for up to an hour after the mating. A single female may occupy the tree for up to a week, mating with multiple males over that time. Also, other females may take her place, mating with some of the same males as well as others.[15] This mating strategy, whereby the females monopolize a site and maximize the available number of mates, seems to be unique among carnivores. Recent research suggests that this system helps the fossa overcome factors which would normally impede mate-finding, such as low population density and lack of den use.[35]

The birthing of the litter of one to six[17] (typically two to four)[5] takes place in a concealed location, such as an underground den, a termite mound, a rock crevice, or in the hollow of a large tree[15] (particularly those of the Commiphora genus).[9] Contrary to older research, litters are of mixed sexes.[5][15] Young are born in December or January, making the gestation period 90 days,[5] with the late mating reports indicating a gestational period of about six to seven weeks.[15] The newborns are blind and toothless and weigh no more than 100 g (3.5 oz).[5][15] The fur is thin and has been described as gray-brown[16] or nearly white.[15] After about two weeks the cubs' eyes open,[5][16] they become more active, and their fur darkens to a pearl gray.[15] The cubs do not take solid food until three months old,[20] and do not leave the den until they are 4.5 months old; they are weaned shortly after that.[5][15] After the first year, the juveniles are independent of their mother.[15] Permanent teeth appear at 18 to 20 months.[5][15] Physical maturity is reached by about two years of age,[20] but sexual maturity is not attained for another year or two,[5][15] and the young may stay with their mother until they are fully mature. Lifespan in captivity is up to or past 20 years of age, possibly due to the slow juvenile development.[17]

Human interactions[edit]

The fossa has been assessed as "Vulnerable" by the IUCN Red List since 2008, as its population size has probably declined by at least 30% between 1987 and 2008; previous assessments have included "Endangered" (2000) and "Insufficiently Known" (1988, 1990, 1994).[2] The species is dependent on forest and thus threatened by the widespread destruction of Madagascar's native forest but is also able to persist in disturbed areas.[9][15] A suite of microsatellite markers (short segments of DNA that have a repeated sequence) have been developed to help aid in studies of genetic health and population dynamics of both captive and wild fossas.[36] Several pathogens have been isolated from the fossa, some of which, such as anthrax and canine distemper, are thought to have been transmitted by feral dogs or cats.[15] Toxoplasma gondii was reported in a captive fossa in 2013.[37]

Although the species is widely distributed, it is locally rare in all regions, making fossas particularly vulnerable to extinction. The effects of habitat fragmentation increase the risk. For its size, the fossa has a lower than predicted population density, which is further threatened by Madagascar's rapidly disappearing forests and dwindling lemur populations, which make up a high proportion of its diet. The loss of the fossa, either locally or completely, could significantly impact ecosystem dynamics, possibly leading to over-grazing by some of its prey species. The total population of the fossa living within protected areas is estimated at less than 2,500 adults, but this may be an overestimate. Only two protected areas are thought to contain 500 or more adult fossas: Masoala National Park and Midongy-Sud National Park, although these are also thought to be overestimated. Too little population information has been collected for a formal population viability analysis, but estimates suggest that none of the protected areas support a viable population. If this is correct, the extinction of the fossa may take as much as 100 years to occur as the species gradually declines. In order for the species to survive, it is estimated that at least 555 km2 (214 sq mi) is needed to maintain smaller, short-term viable populations, and at least 2,000 km2 (770 sq mi) for populations of 500 adults.[27]

Taboo, known in Madagascar as fady,[38] offers protection for the fossa and other carnivores.[39] In the Marolambo District (part of the Atsinanana region in Toamasina Province), the fossa has traditionally been hated and feared as a dangerous animal. It has been described as "greedy and aggressive", known for taking fowl and piglets, and believed to "take little children who walk alone into the forest". Some do not eat it for fear that it will transfer its undesirable qualities to anyone who consumes it.[38] However, the animal is also taken for bushmeat;[15] a study published in 2009 reported that 57% of villages (8 of 14 sampled) in the Makira forest consume fossa meat. The animals were typically hunted using slingshots, with dogs, or most commonly, by placing snare traps on animal paths.[40] Near Ranomafana National Park, the fossa, along with several of its smaller cousins and the introduced small Indian civet (Viverricula indica), are known to "scavenge on the bodies of ancestors", which are buried in shallow graves in the forest. For this reason, eating these animals is strictly prohibited by fady. However, if they wander into villages in search of domestic fowl, they may be killed or trapped. Small carnivore traps have been observed near chicken runs in the village of Vohiparara.[39]

Fossas are occasionally held in captivity in zoos. They first bred in captivity in 1974 in the zoo of Montpellier, France. The next year, at a time when there were only eight fossas in the world's zoos, the Duisburg Zoo in Germany acquired one; this zoo later started a successful breeding program, and most zoo fossas now descend from the Duisburg population. Research on the Duisburg fossas has provided much data about their biology.[16]

References[edit]

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Books cited
  • Albignac, R. (1973). Faune de Madagascar (in French). 36 Mammifères. Carnivores. pp. 1–206. ASIN B000LPMXS6. 
  • Borror, D.J. (1960). Dictionary of Word Roots and Combining Forms. Mayfield Publishing Company. ISBN 978-0-87484-053-7. 
  • Garbutt, N. (2007). Mammals of Madagascar, A Complete Guide. A&C Black Publishers. ISBN 978-0-300-12550-4. 
  • Goodman, S.M.; Benstead, J.P., eds. (2003). The Natural History of Madagascar. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-30306-3. 
Chapter 13 – Mammals
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