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Fossa

fossas short months madagascar

Fossas are cat-like Madagascan carnivores in the family Viverridae, which also includes civets, linsangs, genets, and mongooses. Fossas are quite different from other viverrids and are the sole members of the subfamily Cryptoproctinae. They are the largest Madagascan carnivores, measuring 24-30 in (60-75 cm) long. With a number of cat-like features-including a rounded head, long whiskers, large frontal eyes, middle-sized roundish ears, and relatively short jaw-led to its original classification as a felid. However, the fossa's resemblance to cats is superficial and a result of convergent evolution.

The neck of the fossa is short and thickset, and its body is muscular, long, and slender. The legs are short, and its sharp, curved, retractile claws help it climb trees. The long tail of the fossa is used for balance, but is not prehensile. The feet support well-developed hairless pads which help secure the footing. The fossa is planti-grade, meaning it walks upon the whole foot rather than just the toes, as in most viverrids. The fur is short, thick, and reddish brown on the upperside; the underside is lighter. Occasionally, the fossa is melanistic (an increased amount of nearly black pigmentation.) Fossas are nocturnal terrestrial and arboreal predators, living primarily in coastal forests, and are rarely seen in the central highlands of Madagascar. Their home range is several square kilometers depending on the type of country. The fossa is territorial, marking upright objects within its boundaries with oily secretions from the anal and preputial (loose skin covering the penis) glands. Possessing excellent hearing, sight, and scent, along with having no natural enemies, the fossa is the most powerful predator in Madagascar. Possessing 32 sharp teeth, the fossa has a varied diet including civets and young bush-pigs and other mammals up to the size of lemurs, birds up to the size of guinea fowl, eggs, lizards, snakes, frogs, and insects. Additionally, it will prey on domestic poultry, rabbits, and sheep.

A fossa (Cryptoprocta ferox). © National Audubon Society Collection/Photo Researchers, Inc. Reproduced with permission.

Fossas are solitary, except during the breeding season in September and October, when the nocturnal habits of the fossa also change slightly and become diurnal. After a three-month gestation, two to four young are born in burrows, among rocks, in holes in trees, or forks at the base of large boughs. Only the female fossa will rear the young. The newborn are quite small when compared with other viverrids, and their physical development is slow. The eyes do not open for 16-25 days. The first milk tooth appears when the young fossa is ready for the inaugural venture from the nest at one and a half months. Though weaned by four months, solid food is not taken until three months of age. Climbing begins at about three and a half months. Fully grown and independent at two years, the fossa does not reach sexual maturity for another two years. Male fossa possess a penis-bone, called a baculum. Females exhibit genital mimicry of the males, though the mimicry is not well developed.

Grooming techniques are similar to felids, with licking and scratching with the hind feet, and face washing with the fore feet. Fossas display a variety of vocalizations: a short scream repeated five to seven times is a threat, while the mating call of the female is a long mew, lasting up to 15 seconds. The female calls the young with a sharp, long whimpering. When first beginning to suckle, the young will growl, and both sexes mew and growl when mating.

Fossas live in low population densities and require undisturbed forests which are unfortunately rapidly disappearing on the heavily logged island of Madagascar. Though fossas have lived as long as 17 years in captivity, these animals are unlikely to survive as long in the wild. Recognition of fossas as endangered species is likely.


Resources

Books

Burton, Maurice, ed. The New Larousse Encyclopedia of Animal Life. New York: Bonanza Books, 1984.

Farrand, John, Jr., ed. The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of Animal Life. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc./Publishers, 1982.

Haltenorth, Theodor, and Helmut Diller. Translated by Robert W. Hayman. A Field Guide to the Mammals of Africa Including Madagascar. London: William Collins & Co. Ltd., 1984.

MacDonald, David, and Sasha Norris, eds. Encyclopedia of Mammals. New York: Facts on File, 2001.

National Geographic Society, ed. Book of Mammals, Volume One. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 1981.

Periodicals

Sunquist, Fiona. "Of Quolls and Quokkas." International Wildlife (Jul/Aug 1991): 16.


Betsy A. Leonard

KEY TERMS

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Arboreal

—Living in trees.

Convergent evolution

—An evolutionary pattern by which unrelated species that fill similar ecological niches tend to develop similar morphologies and behavior. Convergence occurs in response to similar selection pressures.

Diurnal

—Refers to animals that are mainly active in the daylight hours.

Felid

—Of or belonging to the family Felidae which includes the lions, tigers, jaguars, and wild and domestic cats; resembling or suggestive of a cat.

Gestation

—The period of carrying developing offspring in the uterus after conception; pregnancy.

Melanistic

—A dark or black pigmentation; dark coloration.

Nocturnal

—Active by night.

Plantigrade

—Walking with the entire lower surface of the foot on the ground, as humans and bears do.

Prehensile

—Adapted for seizing or holding, especially by wrapping around an object.

Retractile

—Capable of being drawn back or in.

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