Tracking the Fossa, Africa's Elusive Island Predator

John Pickrell in England
for National Geographic News
Updated January 18, 2005

Conservation ecologist Luke Dollar started his stint on the African island of Madagascar as a student tracking lemurs. When one of his primate subjects suddenly vanished from the rain forest canopy one day back in 1994, it marked the beginning of an all-consuming love affair with one of the world's weirdest and least known predators.

When Dollar, of North Carolina's Duke University, finally tracked down the animal's radio collar, all that remained were a few bones and tufts of fur. Dollar's terrified guide believed that that the lemur had been devoured by a fossa—a predator that strikes fear into the heart of Madagascar's often superstitious people.

His curiosity piqued by an animal that he and most other wildlife experts had never heard of, Dollar returned two years later. He began a field project that would chart the secret life of the fossa (Cryptoprocta ferox) for the first time.

Copy Cat

Not quite as dangerous to people as local folklore would suggest, the unusual, puma-like fossa was until recently mistaken for a primitive kind of cat.

"Imagine a short, stocky mountain lion," Dollar said. He added that the fossa has a suite of feline traits, including retractable claws and a fearsome set of teeth.

Once thought to specialize in hunting lemurs, the fossa is an opportunistic hunter, feeding on a wide range of animals from mice to wild pigs, according to Dollar's research.

But other fossa features hint at the animal's nonfeline nature: a snout like a dog's, "a long tail it uses like a trapeze artist's pole," and the ability to "fly" through the trees with agility of a squirrel (despite weighing more than a cocker spaniel), for example.

Genetic testing has revealed that, regardless of appearances, the fossa is a close cousin of the mongoose, and a member of the viverrid family, which also includes meerkats, civets, and genets. The fossa's cocky temperament—like that of Rudyard Kipling's fictional mongoose Rikki-Tikki-Tavi—is one of a few characteristics that hint at its family history, Dollar said.

The fossa was described in the 1800s by colonial-era explorers, "but despite sitting at the top of the food chain in one of the world's top-priority hot spots for biodiversity, there has been a total dearth of information about it," Dollar said.

That could be due to the predator's fantastic ability to conceal itself, he said. Until recently scientists simply assumed the fossa was nocturnal, but we now know it is active by both day and night.

One of Dollar's colleagues had never caught a confirmed sighting of the beast, even though she had spent over ten years studying lemurs in prime fossa habitat. So Dollar's first task back in 1996 was simply to confirm the presence of the animal in those forests.

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