Think about an animal with feline characteristics, add a doglike behaviour, throw a mongoose ancestry in the mix and what do you get?
The answer is as simple as it is enigmatic: a fossa.
Here are five facts about Madagascar’s endemic ‘false feline’.
1. It has taken scientists years to make up their minds about these intriguing creatures. The fossa was first described in 1833 when it was thought to be a cat. Current genetic analysis, however, has revealed distant shared connections with the African mongoose.
2. Curious and voracious, fossas have been known to ransack unoccupied tents and eat bars of soap, malaria pills and even leather boots. But their diet consists mainly of lemurs, rodents and other vertebrates.
3. The fossa is Madagascar’s largest carnivore and an excellent arboreal hunter. It is an agile climber with powerful forelimbs, paws with retractable claws and ‘reversible’ ankles. The latter enable it to grasp both sides of a tree trunk when ascending or descending headfirst.
4. The fossa and the other seven endemic carnivores of Madagascar have evolved from a common ancestor that arrived on the island by rafting some 20 – 25 million years ago. They have been placed in their own family, Eupleridea.
5. The naturally low population densities combined with the loss and fragmentation of habitat make the species incredibly vulnerable. The latest Global Mammal Assessment estimates a total population of fewer than 2 500 fossas on Madagascar.