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Fossa: Madagascar’s King of the Jungle

Here is a fossa.

The fossa is Madagascar’s King of the Jungle.

When you typically think of animals at the top of the food chain, you envision large, dominating predators like the tiger, wolf, or polar bear. A new apex predator has moved in along the Big Cat Trail at the San Diego Zoo. It is only the size of a large house cat, but it still dominates the environment it is native to. The fossa is Madagascar’s top predator, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in unusual and interesting adaptations.

Evolution often works in unusual ways in the confines of an island. With limited space and a limited cast of characters, island ecosystems tend to evolve very unusual and unique organisms. The fossa is a prime example of this. For years, scientists have struggled to classify the fossa; is it a cat, a civet, or something else? The best answer is that a fossa is a fossa, although science now tells us that their closest relative is the mongoose. The fossa specializes in hunting another animal indigenous to only Madagascar, the lemur. To catch highly agile and intelligent prey like lemurs, the fossa must excel in those exact same skills.

Gandalf and Miles are the fossa pair you will currently find on Big Cat Trail. The two usually solitary animals have proven to be very compatible, and we hope that they will breed and produce a litter of pups in the future. Although they eat and spend their time exploring their exhibit separately, they return to each other and cuddle up together to sleep. We have hung perches with rope that will sway so that they can put their super agility to work. They have extraordinarily long tails to balance, and they also have a “wrist” of sorts in their ankle that helps them grip with their rear legs just as well as they do with their front. I’ve observed a fossa who wanted to get a better look at something below it grab hold of a ledge with its rear legs and lower itself down in sort of a reverse chin up. Once its curiosity was satisfied, it simply raised itself back up to the ledge!

The fossa also has an amazing variety of weird vocalizations. It can hiss, snarl, cluck, and make an extremely high-pitched squeal, just to name a few. It must seem like the woods are haunted if you happen to be camping in the woods of Madagascar with a chatty fossa nearby. Listen to the amazing sounds they made during a visual introduction:

Unfortunately, the fossa, like most of Madagascar’s wildlife, has rapidly declining populations. Deforestation in Madagascar is rampant as the human population grows. A balance between the humans and wildlife of Madagascar needs to be found for the fossa and the rest of Madagascar’s unique animals to continue to survive.

Don’t miss your chance to see one of the world’s most unique top-shelf predators. Stop by and visit Gandalf and Miles and see the amazing abilities of these one-of-a-kind animals.

Todd Speis is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Two Little Pigs.

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Fossa Milestones

It has been a while since many of you have last heard about the San Diego Zoo’s young fossa, named Isa (see previous post, Fossa Fun). During the last few months, Isa has passed many milestones in his development. As you may remember, he was raised in the Children’s Zoo (CZ) nursery with his brother who, unfortunately, died a short time later of a heart condition. Concerned for Isa’s well-being, we doted over him and tried to fill his every need. Of course, we were concerned that Isa would also be afflicted with some sort of health problem that would cut his life short. Time proved that he would grow into a handsome young fossa and dazzle all who know him. Currently he is strong, healthy, and happy, and living in the CZ, excelling at his job of being an animal ambassador.

We tried different training techniques with Isa and figured out which one would work best for his species and personality. When he was still in the nursery, we introduced him to a collar and a leash. We would let him wear it for a short period of time and gradually lengthen that time. Before long he acted as though it wasn’t even there. Then we took him on short walks and gradually lengthened the time of those as well. He was so curious on his own with just his natural surroundings that we stopped using toys to keep him entertained. He would climb trees, rocks, run along wall tops, etc. We had to be track runners just to keep up with him!

As he grew and got more coordinated, he started jumping from tree to tree, and then the challenge became not to get the leash wrapped around something and interrupt his momentum. You had to be ready for fun and running when you took the fossa out for a “walk.” People would try to take pictures, but he moved so fast that usually it was just a blur on their camera.

Today, Isa is a regular participant in the CZ’s animal ambassador program and periodically appears on the news and other television shows, VIP presentations, private and corporate events held at the Zoo, and last, but not least, daily walks around the grounds of the CZ.

His future looks bright and busy. He has impressed his trainers by his honest and affectionate personality, and we will continue to uncover and share his amazing abilities and uniqueness with all of you. Isa has many more milestones to pass, and personally I believe that the more I know about Isa and fossas in general, the more I will continue to be in awe of this little known, misunderstood animal.

Heidi Trowbridge is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.