Forest and montane

Fossa relatives

At first glance, a fossa looks like some kind of cat, monkey, or weasel. It has paws with claws like a cat, a long tail like a monkey, and round little ears like a weasel, so it's easy to be confused! Although it shares some adaptive similarities with cats, the fossa is closely related to the mongoose and civet. Its coat is short and dense, usually a rich brown color with a golden tinge and a lighter-colored belly. The fossa's tail makes up about half of the animal's length!

Fooled by fossas

Little is known about fossas, mostly because there aren’t many of them, and they live in remote, forested areas. They have puzzled scientists since the 1830s. Native only to the island nation of Madagascar, off the east coast of Africa, fossas are that island’s largest carnivores. Locals pronounce the name “foo-sa” and “foosh.”

The fossa is the top predator on the island of Madagascar.
Fossas have scent glands that release a stinky smell when the animal is irritated or frightened.
The modern mongoose and the fossa evolved from the same ancestor, which arrived on Madagascar about 21 million years ago.

The San Diego Zoo’s first fossas were two young males, gifts of the Malagasy government in 1967. It was several years before our first female arrived as part of a pair from the Basel Zoo in Switzerland, and we celebrated our first fossa birth in 1989, the first such birth in the Western Hemisphere. Since then, 32 pups have been born at the Zoo over the years.

Today, the San Diego Zoo continues to make a home for fossas, including a male named Isa who serves as an animal ambassador. He was hand-raised after his mother rejected him. Isa meets Zoo guests up close on daily walks around the Children’s Zoo, and makes appearances at special events and on television. We believe he is the first fossa in the world to learn to walk on a leash and greet people. He helps spread the word about his species.

Marooned on Madagascar for millions of years, the fossa became the largest native carnivore and dominated the island. Today, fossas are classified as a vulnerable species, with only about 2,500 in the wild. As one of the island's top predators, fossas do not have natural enemies. Yet it is estimated that 90 percent of Madagascar’s native forest habitat is gone, and what is left is considered a key biodiversity hotspot. It is home to 35 lemur species, but lemurs need the forest to survive. In turn, fossas depend on lemurs as a food source. Fossas also have to compete for food with introduced species like civets. And there are diseases that threaten fossas: for example, rabies was introduced to the island by domestic dogs and wild cats.

Fossas also face another hurdle: they have an unfavorable reputation with villagers, who see them as vermin, competitors for resources, and predators of farm animals. They tell bedtime stories of fossas snuffing out campfires and killing entire coops of chickens. These exaggerated stories have unfairly blown the fossa’s reputation out of proportion. Yet because of this sinister standing, many Malagasy people fear fossas and consider them dangerous.

The fossa has help, though, because it is protected from export and trade. Ecotourism also helps the fossa and other wildlife in Madagascar. When people travel to this island to see its amazing biodiversity, their visits provide money for the local people and encourage them to keep the forests as they are.

You can help us bring fossas back from the brink by supporting the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy. Together we can save and protect wildlife around the globe.