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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Elusive Fossa

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood talks with Boston Globe reporter Vicki Croke about her search for a very hard to find animal. Fossa (fue-sa) live in the wilds of Madagascar, and may be the evolutionary link between the mongoose and cat families. But, research on these creatures is difficult because they are extremely hard to find.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. If you haven't heard of an animal called a fossa, you're not alone. Until recently, even zoologists knew little about these ferocious creatures that could be the evolutionary link between the mongoose and cat families. Fossa live in the wilds of Madagascar and eat, well, just about anything they can get a hold of, even if it's as big as they are. Vicki Croke, a writer for the Boston Globe, recently journeyed to Madagascar with fossa tracker Luke Dollar, to follow her obsession with these pint-sized killers

CROKE: The fossa is a bit of a Holy Grail for me. I came across the name of the fossa years ago, when I was working on a book about zoos. I became intrigued, had never heard of it before. And started to rummage around the scientific literature, and I couldn't find anything about it. Very little. And eventually, I interviewed Pat Wright [phonetic spelling], who is a lemur expert. She had an undergraduate student at the time, Luke Dollar, and she said his focus is the fossa and she got the two of us in touch.

CURWOOD: So, what exactly do they look like? They weigh about --

CROKE: They weigh less than a cocker spaniel. They're not as friendly as a cocker spaniel.


CURWOOD: I guess not.

CROKE: They're very long. And their tail is the same length as their body. They have enormous feet and claws on those feet. They have outsized canine teeth to do the job. And they're chocolate-covered with a little bit, some of them have a cream blaze from their throat down along their bellies. They look like a cat, and for years scientists did think that they were cats. In fact, they are in the mongoose family. Though there was a time in history, in the far past, in which the mongoose and cat families were joined, and the fossa may represent that individual.

CURWOOD: So what was it like tracking these fossa?

CROKE: We hiked about 20 miles a day through very rough terrain. There were itchy vines and lianas and we had to come crashing through them. Steep ridges. We would lose the -- the fossa's range in that area is probably something like 12 miles, and there were two fossa that Luke had previously radio-collared, so it sounds like a breeze to find them.


CROKE: However, the telemetry equipment had a range of two miles, the fossa a range of 12 miles.


CROKE: So we had a hard time. You'd start out in the morning, and you'd hear these very promising tocks over the radio. And within several miles of tracking them, you'd lose that signal to a ridge or a deep ravine. And we found that very often, when we were up on top of a ridge, to retrace our tracks we would definitely lose the animal. So, the fastest way down a ridge often was just to fall. Luke was the first one to discover that. We looked down a steep ridge and he fell down, I think by accident. But Roy, the photographer, Roy Toft, the photographer, and I looked at each other, laughed, held hands, and just jumped down. (Both laugh) And the three of us landed in that red Madagascar dirt up our noses, in our ears, streaking our clothes, and just had to laugh at each other. But when you're tracking a fossa, that's what you have to do.

CURWOOD: So how many days are you out tracking a fossa before you see one?

CROKE: We tracked for about seven days. Extremely arduous conditions. We also had had about 20 traps set out with live chickens in them to try to catch the fossa. And the day we were to leave, a fossa hit one of the traps and actually, it pulled the legs off of a chicken in there. The chicken had to be put to sleep humanely. But once she had hit a trap, we thought she would return and try to get the chicken again, and so we, against all odds and really coming up against our time frame, we stayed an extra day, hoping against hope that she would hit that trap. And she did.

CURWOOD: So what did you think the first time you saw it?

CROKE: To tell you the truth, I had tears in my eyes when I saw her. We got to see her, we tracked her in the morning and actually saw her from a great distance. And she was as elusive as the shadows of the forest. We saw her for one second. And it was a moment of incredible beauty. And you could see -- you know from seeing how the lemurs are so aware of any movement, and you think this animal hunts lemurs, it's able to get up to them in a flash. And what the fossa does is it grabs a lemur by the face with its canine teeth and eviscerates the lemur with its front claws.


CROKE: Fearsome animal.

CURWOOD: Before Luke Dollar started his research, much of what was known about fossa came from observations in the zoo, those that had been captured. What does the research tell us now? What sort of things is he discovering?

CROKE: For one, fossa are smaller than zoo specimens. In zoos, obviously, they get a high-protein diet all the time, and they lounge around. So the animals in the wild are a little bit smaller than the zoo specimens. We also know that they're not nocturnal. That had been thought previously. They are cathemeral, which means that they eat and nap and hunt in no set order. Whatever is convenient. They're true opportunists. We also know that they eat fish. No one knew that before, and it's kind of funny. Luke discovered that because he picks up fossa scat all along the trail. That's one of the main activities we had while we were there. And some fossa scat smelled fishy to him. And sure enough, when he broke it apart, there were fish bones in there.

CURWOOD: Now, Madagascar is an area that, since it's been separated from land for, what, almost 200 million years, 150, 200 million years, people never got there until fairly recently. And when they got there they found all these endemic animals and plants that are just found on Madagascar. But most of the wilderness that people found is gone. I mean, how much is left on Madagascar, of the aboriginal, unique ecosystem that it was?

CROKE: It's actually frightening. Ninety percent of the original forest is now gone from Madagascar. The island is about the size of Texas, 1,000 miles long. The ten percent of original forest that's left is mostly in a ring around the outer perimeter. And from the air, or even when you're driving through Madagascar, it's so apparent, the degradation of the environment. It's like a victim of war. It's battered, it's burned, it's scarred, and the red soil of Madagascar is just bleeding into the ocean.

CURWOOD: Now, how does this degradation of the environment, how does this affect the fossa?

CROKE: It's not known how many fossa there are. We do know that they can live happily in most every environment around the island. But what Luke is discovering is that the moment there's some disturbance in the forest, the fossa falls out. In the forest where we were, he expected, because of the prey density and the environment, that he would trap lots of fossa. He only trapped, in his three months there, two. There are lots of lemur researchers in the forest disturbing it. There are people collecting firewood, which they're not supposed to. Honey cutters actually cut down whole trees to get at the combs. And fossa, Luke now believes, are the first ones to leave the forest when there's disturbance.

CURWOOD: Vicki Croke writes the Animal Beat column for the Boston Globe. Her article about the fossas is in the April issue of Discover magazine. Thanks, Vicki, for taking this time with us.

CROKE: Thank you, Steve.



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