Tag Archives: animals

The awesome fossa. Fossome.

My post today is going to sound like an essay written by a little kid, because it’s about one of my favorite animals, the fossa. First off, it’s pronounced ‘foo-sah’, because the name comes from Malagasy (the properish term for things from Madagascar), not from Latin. The other common use of the word fossa is in anatomy (meaning a ditch or trench), and is pronounced ‘fahsa’, because it IS Latin.

The fossa is the largest member of the family Eupleridae, which makes up the Malagasy carnivores. In this context, when I use the word carnivore, I really mean ‘member of the mammalian order Carnivora, not ‘animal that eats meat’. You could also say ‘Carnivoran’ for this, but that’s just annoying. Euplerids are related to mongooses, civets, and hyenas, all of which are in their own families, and more closely related to cats than dogs (but they are NOT cats).

Fossas (remember, not Latin, so this is the plural) are only 2 to 2.5 feet long and weigh maybe 20-25 pounds maximum, with tails as long as their body (so maybe 4-5 feet total), but they are some rough customers for their size. They really like to eat lemurs, another Malagasy-only animal. I’m pretty sure it’s because lemurs are delicious, but you’d have to ask a fossa, because I have yet to eat one. Watching fossas hunt is probably the coolest thing ever, unless you really like lemurs, because when hunting they are basically unrestrained arboreal lemur-murdering machines.

Personally, I like fossas better than lemurs, so their tendencies toward serial-killing of lemurs doesn’t bother me that much. A girl’s gotta eat.

I really want to eat that lemur.

Fossas also have a really crazy mating system. Females mate multiply with groups of males, generally with all the males present. Females also have transiently masculinized genitalia while juveniles (spinescent and enlarged), interestingly reminiscent of the spotted hyena, though not quite as extreme.

Another species of fossa, called the giant fossa, went extinct fairly recently, as the remains that have been found are ‘subfossils’, meaning not-yet-fossilized. The giant fossa wasn’t much bigger than our current fossa though, maybe topping out at about 45 pounds. There are many legends about fossas much bigger than this, up to seven and even ten feet long. Awesome, but probably not true. There did used to be some really big lemurs they could eat though, so maybe we’ll find some huge fossa fossils (fossals) sometime in the future.

I am cool.

Sadly, fossas are endangered, mostly due to habitat loss, as deforestation is a huge problem in Madagascar. Local people will also kill them because they are thought to attack livestock, and also as bushmeat (food), despite many taboos against eating fossas.

So, here’s to the fossa, a unique, awesome, and unfortunately endangered animal that chows down on lemurs. Personally, I’ve still got my fingers crossed that they’ll find one that’s 10 feet long.


The great butterfly apocalypse (butterpocalypse) of 2013

I had a dream the other night. I was working at my desk, when suddenly, cabbage white butterflies (like the one in the picture) started raining down all around me, dead or dying. I tried to save them, but I couldn’t move. I screamed, down on my knees; a long, drawn out, “Nooooooo!”. It was very dramatic – think Charlton Heston at the end of planet of the apes, when he finds the statue of liberty and realizes he was on Earth all along (spoiler alert!).

Small White butterfly (Pieris rapae)
Small White butterfly (Pieris rapae) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Then I woke up. As my dog Darwin realized I was awake and started licking my face, the thought occurred to me that it was one of those dreams that you wake up from, but then once you’re awake you realize that what you were dreaming is really happening. At least allegorically – like the dream was a big metaphor for my life.

Spring this year was cold and wet, and most of the butterflies decided to sleep in until midsummer. They are out now, but as far as I can tell, they are still not common. Perhaps they hide from me, scheming little butterfly schemes.

I need to raise a whole generation in captivity if I want to use them for research, so when I catch females, I try to get them to lay eggs. Sometimes they do lay eggs. Sometimes they don’t lay eggs. Often they just die, lying on their sides and breathing laboriously (metaphorically again – insects don’t have lungs) in their little white mesh butterfly houses with their potted plants and sugar-water feeders.

Most research projects I’ve worked on involved watching animals in the wild, collecting them temporarily and then re-releasing them, or analyzing data that other people had collected. None of these were easy. Nevertheless, I think that simultaneously raising a number of butterfly species in captivity, and trying to keep them happy and healthy, is one of the hardest things I’ve tried yet. Perhaps the worst part is having to continuously rethink my plans. It’s amazing how hard one can think and plan for something, but then when you actually try to DO it, everything immediately falls apart.

Learning that all your preconceptions were actually misconceptions is pretty normal for science, and probably for life in general. But that doesn’t make it any less frustrating. Learning is hard. For now I’ve got some good ideas of what to try next, lots of help and advice from my mentors and friends here, and a lot of adult butterflies provided by some very nice people that should help me out by laying the next generation of eggs. Fingers crossed!

Next time I post I’ll try to get into why I even want to raise butterflies in the first place.