Before my trip to Madagascar last summer, I was guaranteed a fossa sighting— a must-see on my Madagascar bucket list. Fossa are Madagascar’s largest endemic carnivores, and these nocturnal animals are closely related to the mongoose. During previous field seasons in the rainforest of Madagascar, we had caught pictures of fossa on our camera traps (cameras that are triggered to go off when an animal goes in front of them), but the closest we had ever come to seeing one was hearing one hunting a bamboo lemur. Although fossa can be elusive and difficult to find, in reality they can show up just when you least expect them.
For example— during the dry season, and especially in drought years, they make frequent appearances at our field camp in search of water. Fossa are supposed to be solitary, but we’ve seen up to three all at once approaching our precious water buckets in an attempt to quench their own thirst. They also decide that our buckets must good things to chew on, as the cup that we use to wash our hands is now sporting a pour-spout thanks to some fossa teeth.
One day, a single fossa came to camp with a rather unique scar on its face. We inferred it must have acquired such a badge from an encounter with the wild pigs that it was trying to hunt in the forest. The pigs (which I have never seen nor care to see) are huge, but they were introduced to Madagascar by the colonials and thus are somewhat destructive and invasive.
Normally when our fossa friends come to camp, they at least humor us and move slightly if we try and scare them away, but “Scar Face”, as we named him, didn’t budge. After several futile attempts to discourage the fossa from encroaching on our campground, I went back to my tent to change into camp clothes. Upon arrival, I realized that a fossa had bitten a rather large gaping hole in my tent in an attempt to extract my towel! Fossa apparently sometimes just try to get into tents for the fun of it, and believe me, it succeeded. My tent now sports a large gorilla-tape patch that makes rolling it up rather amusing. (Update to the pig story: they too have made an appearance at our tents, causing lots of noise and lack of sleep, although no holes in the tent).
Beyond tent repairs, our fossa struggles have only continued to pile up. After the first incident, we decided to move our tents to a different part of the forest. Our mistake was we didn’t realize that where we put them was a so-called “fossa highway”. One of our first nights in the new spot, I woke up in the middle of the night to a fossa tap-tapping on my tent right next to my head. Given that they are predators and also generally don’t care about leaving when we try and scare them off, I wasn’t sure if the better bet was to remain silent or try and scare it away with my light. It eventually left after a few more taps. Though everyone at camp thought this was hilarious when I told them the following morning, they thought it was less funny when it happened to them a couple nights later.
The conclusion on the fossa is that they are cute and have some interesting social behaviors, but are also stubborn and most definitely need to leave your tent alone, especially at night.
Meredith Lutz is a 1st year Ph.D. student studying social network plasticity in lemurs. This field fiasco happened during a field season at the Sifaka Research Project in western Madagascar. You can read more about this Field Fiasco and others at her field blog.