MADAGASCAN MYSTERY CATS – WITH FELINE FELICITATIONS FROM THE FITOATY AND THE FOSSA

by on Mar.11, 2020, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

Depiction of the fitoaty (© Tim Morris)
South-east of the African mainland lies the island of Madagascar – a zoological time-capsule. For it is the home of a vast variety of creatures extinct elsewhere or totally unique – a wonderland of lemurs and tenrecs, falanoucs and vanga-shrikes. It has no native canids or felids, instead the euplerids, i.e. Malagasy civets and mongooses, reign supreme here.
Among this heterogeneous assemblage, the largest species – and the creature that assumes on Madagascar the ecological roles occupied elsewhere by sizeable felid species – is the fossa Cryptoprocta ferox(not to be confused with the Madagascan civet or fanaloka, whose scientific name is Fossa fossa). Despite its euplerid affinities, the puma-sized fossa is strikingly cat-like in appearance (indeed, in earlier ages several zoologists classified it as an aberrant felid), and is especially comparable to the Neotropical jaguarundi.
Ultra-realistic fossa illustration produced some time between 1700 and 1880 (public domain)
However, Madagascar may also possess some uncategorised true felids. In a report published by the Chasseur Français in October 1939, Paul Cazard recalled that whilst in Madagascar he had been informed by civil engineer Mr Belime that native tales originating from areas of the island still unexplored by Westerners told of giant lions that lived in caves, and which ravaged the island’s other fauna as well as the inhabitants of these regions’ native villages.
Cazard contemplated whether these lions of the rocks could possibly be living sabre-tooths, and wondered if it would be feasible for an expedition to be mounted to seek out these mighty beasts. Feasible or not, no such expedition has set out on their trail to date, so their identity remains unknown. Needless to say, zoogeographically-speaking it would be a great jolt to scientific conceptions if a bona fide cat form were to be discovered here. Yet it would certainly not be without precedent, as the discovery of so many hitherto unknown and highly unexpected animals within the 20th and 21stCenturies can readily verify.
Could Madagascar’s mystifying ‘lions of the rocks’ be living sabre-tooths? (© Dr Karl Shuker)
Domestic cats Felis catus had been introduced into Madagascar by the 17th Century, and many have since run wild, yielding widely-distributed feral populations across this extremely large island. However, in a cz@yahoogroups.com posting of 19 May 2003, I recalled that back in 1967, within his book The Life, History, and Magic of the Cat, Fernand Mery had included the following tantalising snippet concerning a felid specimen procured in Madagascar that may constitute something much more significant than a mere feral domestic:
The Malagasy Academy possesses a specimen of a magnificent tabby cat, larger than a domestic cat. Details of its capture on Madagascar are uncertain, but of interest is that in the local Malagasy language, pisu = domestic cat, with kary used to denote ‘wild cats’, even though wildcats do not officially exist on the island.
Mery considered that this lent support for the probable existence of wildcats on Madagascar.  Interestingly, in a Fortean Times letter (November 2003), Dr Geoff Hosey from the Bolton Institute in Manchester, England, noted that Mery’s above-quoted information from his book appeared to have been lifted almost verbatim from an earlier work, Raymond Decary’s book La Faune Malgache (1950). Decary had also alluded to wildcats appearing in various Malagasy folktales, thereby providing further evidence that such cats do indeed exist in Madagascar. Moreover, Dr Hosey included in his published FT letter a very intriguing colour photograph snapped by him in August 1998 of a cat curled up asleep that may have been merely a feral domestic cat but which in his opinion looked very like an African wildcat Felis lybica. The cat was in an unlabelled cage at Parc Tsimbazaza, the zoo that occupies the grounds of the old Academie Malgache. Unfortunately, however, due to its curled-up position, the cat presented insufficient morphological details for a precise identification of it to be made from the photo alone.
My cz@yahoogroups.com posting had been in response to a previous one that same day by British palaeontologist Dr Darren Naish, who, a little earlier in May 2003, had unexpectedly obtained some most interesting information while watching a television programme – information that bestowed added significance upon Mery’s statement.
Do African wildcats exist in Madagascar? (copyright-free/Wikipedia)
The programme was a documentary in National Geographic’s ‘Out There’ series, during which, while conducting some studies in northwestern Madagascar’s Ankarafantsika National Park, Tennessee University fossa researcher Luke Dollar trapped what looked like a wildcat – the second such creature that he had caught there. Moreover, instead of resembling a feral domestic cat, it seemed exactly like the African wildcat Felis lybica. In the programme, Dollar hinted that it may be either a valid new record for Madagascar, or even a bona fide new species.
A blood sample from this intriguing specimen, a pregnant juvenile, was taken for examination – how remarkable it would be if Mery’s belief in Madagascan wildcats had finally been justified. Sadly, however, although I emailed Dollar concerning it in February 2012, I never received any response from him, so I have no idea whether any information of significance was obtained from this sample (but as I have not uncovered online or elsewhere any follow-up details regarding it, I am assuming that nothing of note was obtained).
In any event, the fascinating saga of mystery felids on Madagascar does not end there, as my continuing researches have duly discovered. In November 2013, a remarkable paper authored by Massachusetts University anthropologist Dr Cortni Borgerson was published in the journal Madagascar Conservation and Development, concerning a Madagascan mystery beast hitherto unknown to me. It was referred to locally as the fitoaty, and native descriptions of it given to Borgerson and her assistants suggested a gracile, entirely black-furred felid (as opposed to any form of euplerid), but larger and leaner than feral domestics and confined to the rainforests of northeastern Madagascar’s little-studied Masoala peninsula.
Moreover, during 2011 Borgerson was fortunate enough to observe a fitoaty personally, when she saw what she described in her paper as “a medium-sized melanistic car­nivoran crossing a village trail just outside the Masoala National Park boundary. The sighting occurred at approximately 15:00h, in a transitional area of primary and secondary forest”. She tentatively classified the fitoaty as Felis sp., and stated that trapping and genetic testing of this unidentified felid was needed in order to assess adequately its taxonomic identity, distribution range, and potential impact upon local ecosystems.
Tim Morris’s fitoaty illustration again (© Tim Morris)
In December 2015, a second paper concerning the fitoaty appeared, authored by a seven-strong team of researchers (including two from Madagascar’s Wildlife Conservation Society), and published in the Journal of Mammalogy. It presented not only the first population assessment of the fitoaty, or black forest cat as it was now being referred to colloquially, but also a series of excellent full-colour and black-and-white photographs of fitoaty specimens obtained via camera-trapping methods (click here to view a selection of these photos).
Interestingly, the team discovered that there was minimal interaction between the fitosty and feral domestics in the wild. Nevertheless, based upon their field research they suggested that this mystifying melanistic was “a phenotypically-different form of the feral cat [rather than constituting either an African wildcat or any other felid species, known or unknown], but additional research is needed”. I now look forward to further fitoaty studies, to determine conclusively the precise taxonomic and genetic nature of this unexpected ‘new’ member of Madagascar’s mammalian fauna.
Incidentally, just in case you are wondering, the fitoaty’s name is Malagasy for ‘seven livers’, which stems from a somewhat strange native belief concerning this animal’s internal anatomy. Moreover, its flesh is claimed by locals to be poisonous, and therefore is never eaten by them.
Finally: please click hereto read about another feline mystery beast from Madagascar – the antamba, believed by some to be a surviving representative of the officially-extinct giant fossa Cryptoprocta spelea, estimated from subfossil remains to have been twice the size of the modern-day fossa. Also of interest is that Madagascan native people across the island speak not only of the normal, reddish-brown fossa, which they refer to as the fosa mena (‘red fossa’), but also of a larger, all-black version known to them as the fosa mainty (‘black fossa’), which has yet to be seen by scientists (initially it was wondered whether the fitoaty was this mysterious melanistic fossa, until photographic evidence confirmed that the fitoaty was a felid, not a fossa).  There is even native talk of a white fossa version, but whether reports of black fossas and white fossas are based upon genuine creatures (respectively melanistic and leucistic specimens, perhaps?) or are merely folkloric creatures remains unclear.
What fossa-formed mysteries still lurk amid the shadows of Madagascar’s jungles? (public domain)

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