8 Fun Facts About the Fossa

Close up of a FossaMathias Appel / CC0

the next version of Ubuntu is codenamed “Focal Fossa”, the latest in a long list of software tools and programming languages named after the animals. But what is a pit, anyway?

These huge mongooses are found in one place in the world, and are unlike any other animal – so it’s not surprising that you haven’t heard of them. Here are the coolest things to know about the latest mascot in the tech industry.

What is a Fossa?

Although they are related to mongooses, the fossas (pronounced “FOO-sahs”) are more like strange and close-fitting cats than their mongoose cousins. But at up to six feet long from nose to tip of tail, they are much larger than your average cat.

The fossas live on the East African island of Madagascar. Over millions of years, this island has developed unique ecosystems and an equally unique fauna …92 percent mammals from Madagascar are found nowhere else in the world, including the pits.

The fossas occupy the top of the Malagasy food chain. Using retractable claws and sharp teeth, they hunt almost anything they like. However, the fossas are today threatened by human activity on the island, which has destroyed much of their natural habitat.

Our favorite Fossa facts

Fossa, standing, rock, full profileRan Kirlian / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Millions of years of evolution of the island have provided the pit with some pretty interesting features. Here are some fascinating facts about these feline hunters.

Fossas are mainly tails

The Fossas are about six feet long – an impressive length, but the solid half of that is the tail. These forest predators spend a lot of time navigating the treetops in Madagascar, where their long tails are widely used. A tail can be used as a balance aid on a fragile branch, allowing the pits to move even faster than their favorite prey: lemurs.

Lemurs depend on fossas

As a favorite snack of the fossa, you might think that lemurs are threatened by the fossas. But while a lemur can perish on the legs of a pit, the fate of lemur species actually depends on these predators.

Without natural predators, the island’s lemur populations would increase uncontrollably. An uncontrollable population will quickly exhaust all their habitats and food resources, endangering the whole species. So, without fossas to hunt them, the lemurs of Madagascar would probably not survive.

Fossas are quick killers

A lemur facing death by fossa will not have much time to consider its fate. The Fossas kill by using their awesome teeth bite through the skull of their prey.

We don’t know how many Fossas there are

There is no doubt that pit populations are decreasing with their habitats. However, scientists are not entirely sure how many pits remain in island forests, although it is estimated about 2500. In fact, we don’t know much about the pits.

The fossas quickly whip the trees, making them difficult to find and observe. They are mainly solitary, so there is no group of pits that can be tracked. Plus, their reddish-brown coats all look more or less the same – there are no striped or spotted patterns to distinguish one pit from the next. This makes it difficult to find the pit. Researchers thought they were nocturnal until relatively recently, but it turned out that they were just good at hiding.

However, it’s safe to say there aren’t too many. In addition to dealing with habitat threats, the pits simply do not reproduce very quickly. Females give birth once a year to litters of two to four cubs. It takes three years for a pit to reach adulthood and four before it is ready to have its own puppies.

Fossas purrs like cats

Although they are not cats, fossas purr, at least when they are young. Fossa puppies have been found to be purring when they are around their mother. Puppies are also born with white fur that begins to turn brown at two to three weeks of age.

Young Fossa females have fake penises

Yes, you read that right. Masculinization in females is a unique feature of some mammalian species, and the female pits experience something even rarer, called transient masculinization.

Before reaching sexual maturity, the female pits grow larger, the spiny clitoris which imitate the male penis. This is thought to protect the female pits from persistent progress by males who mate until they are old enough to mate. As we age, females lose these “masculine” traits.

The female Fossas are difficult

When it’s time to choose a partner, the female pits keep control of the situation. A female in heat climb high in a tree and wait for the males on the ground to fight for the chance to mate with it. She will choose her companion from among the winners and once the mating is finished, she will leave the chosen treetops to a new female, where the mating ritual will start again. The fossas often return to the same tree to mate year after year.

The scientific name of Fossa has a surprising translation

Scientifically, the pits are known as Cryptoprocta ferox. Ferox translates to “fierce”, which is not surprising for these ferocious hunters. But Cryptoprocta translates to “hidden anus”. The name refers to another strange feature of the pit: a natural pocket covers their anuses.

It is not hard to see why the ingenious and unique pit was chosen for the latest Ubuntu codename. However, without serious conservation efforts, the pit risks disappearing as obsolete software. With so much to learn about the pits, we hope they will be protected for years to come.

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