Meet the Euplerids, the Strange Carnivores of Madagascar

The island is famous for lemurs, but these cat-like animals deserve attention too.

The fossa looks more like a pint-sized panther than the animal it's more closely related to: the mongoose. belizar73 /iStockPhoto

Before the movie "Madagascar," most of us probably never realized that the beloved lemur had an enemy, the fossa. This carnivore really does exist — and it really enjoys snacking on the unwary lemur.

Cryptoprocta ferox, pictured above, is a type of civet that looks a bit like a small panther. A long tail, glossy coat and a cat-like body — right down to semi-retractible claws — belie that the fossa is more closely related to mongoose than to felines. It's the largest of the island's carnivores, and also one of the oldest to have arrived and evolved on Madagascar.

But the fossa isn't the only carnivore found on Madagascar. Somewhere around 18 or 20 million years ago, a mongoose-like ancestor rafted over to Madagascar and settled in. The common ancestor eventually branched off into species adapted for certain niches of the island's ecosystems.

There are 10 species of carnivore. This includes the fossa, the fanaloka, the falanouc, six species of mongoose. Also found on Madagascar is the small Indian civet, but that's an introduced species. Madagascar's carnivores make up the clade of Eupleridae, better known as malagasy mongooses.

Considering it took them millions of years to evolve into the special species they are today, and considering each of them are considered threatened due to habitat loss and fragmentation, it's about time we get to know these strange and beautiful carnivores that didn't getting a starring role in a movie.

Ring-tailed mongoose (Galidia elegans)

Ring-tailed mongoose (Galidia elegans)
Ring-tailed mongoose is the most widespread carnivore on the island of Madagascar. Dennis van de Water/Shutterstock

This beautiful red-coated creature is one of the several species of mongoose, also called vontsira, found on Madagascar. The euplerid is the largest member of the subfamily Galidiinae, but it's quite small, measuring no more than about 15 inches long and weighing a maximum of about 32 ounces.

The playful carnivores are agile climbers, with large and hairless foot pads that provide exceptional grip. They spend their days tracking down snacks in their humid forest habitat. They aren't picky eaters either, going for anything from small mammals to fish, insects, reptiles, eggs and even fruit. Those living close to people might also take off with the occasional chicken from someone's yard.

While this is the most common and widespread of Madagascar's carnivores, the population of ring-tailed mongoose is on the decline. According to IUCN's assessment in 2015, "It is close to listing as Near Threatened because over the course of the next three generations (taken as 20 years), it is likely that the population will drop by more than than 15 percent (and possibly much more) mainly because of widespread hunting, persecution and the effects of introduced carnivores."

Grandidier's mongoose (Galidictis grandidieri)

One reason the carnivores of Madagascar have been so successful is that many of the species inhabit only a small section of the island. This makes a lot of sense when you consider the vast range of habitat type of Madagascar, from coastal tropical rain forest to dry deciduous forest. This endangered mongoose species is found in only a small area of southwestern Madagascar with an arid spiny forest habitat. It has perhaps the smallest range of any of Madagascar's carnivores.

Unlike its diurnal relative the ring-tailed mongoose, the Grandidier's mongoose — also known as the giant-striped mongoose — handles the heat of its desert home by staying in caves and burrows by day and coming out in the evening hours to hunt. According to ARKive, "The giant-striped mongoose primarily feeds on invertebrates such as grasshoppers and scorpions, although it has been known to consume small birds, reptiles and occasionally mammals."

The population of this species is estimated to be only around 3,000 to 5,000 individuals, and they're located primarily around Lac Tsimanampetsotsa, a saline lake that provides critical wetland habitat within the spiny desert region.

Unfortunately, the habitat of this endangered species calls home is itself endangered due to human activity, including burning and clearing of the delicate forest for agricultural use and the charcoal industry, and the spread of invasive plant species.

Brown-tailed mongoose (Salanoia concolor)

It isn't easy to get a photo of these secretive creatures. Here are two brown-tailed vontsira sneaking by a researcher's camera trap.
It isn't easy to get a photo of these secretive creatures. Here are two brown-tailed vontsira sneaking by a researcher's camera trap. Zach Farris/WCS Madagascar

At home in the subtropical and tropical dry forests of Madagascar is the brown-tailed mongoose, also known as the salano and the brown-tailed vontsira. Like the giant-striped mongoose, this species is listed as vulnerable in part because its habitat is threatened.

IUCN notes that the population is likely to drop by more than 30 percent in the next 10 years due to widespread habitat loss, as well as hunting and introduced carnivores.

The breakdown of governance since the coup d'etat in 2009 has led to increased artisanal mining in forest areas, increased hunting, and increased opportunistic rosewood cutting throughout the species's range, especially in its core lowland forest habitat. This is so even in the protected areas such as Masoala National Park, one of the few sites where the species has been recorded recently.

Because so little is known about the species, it could be declining at rates that justify the status of Endangered, but there isn't enough information to be sure.

It isn't a wonder that we know so little about this species and its cousins. Asia Murphy, a researcher studying Madagascar's wildlife, notes:

For a long time the most we knew was that the carnivores preferred forest to not-forest and that fosa occasionally came into camps to eat soap. Fast-forward to 2014 and Madagascar’s carnivores — the euplerids, which can be found nowhere else in the world — were some of the world’s most threatened but least studied carnivores. The difficulties of doing research in Madagascar made studies few and far between.

But with the advent of camera trap technology, that's starting to change. Perhaps we will learn more about the brown-tailed mongoose in time to prevent its from slipping toward extinction.

Broad-striped Malagasy mongoose (Galidictis fasciata)

Broad-striped Malagasy mongoose (Galidictis fasciata)
There's a lot we don't know about the broad-striped Malagasy mongoose (Galidictis fasciata). Grigory Morozov/Wikipedia

Similar in appearance to the giant-striped mongoose, the broad-striped Malagasy mongoose is a resident of the east side of Madagascar, finding its home in lowland forests. While some of its cousins are strong climbers and love hanging out in the trees, this species sticks to the forest floor.

It's active only at night, and usually likes company. In camera trap surveys, the species was recorded primarily hanging out in pairs. Other than that, there's still much to learn.

Murphy notes of her research work in the Masoala-Makira forest complex, "Despite 15 surveys at seven sites, we still know little about this cute critter with the skunk-inverse fur coat."

Narrow-striped mongoose (Mungotictis decemlineata)

Narrow-striped mongoose
This little guy is the arrow-striped mongoose. Heinonlein/Wikipedia

We've seen the giant-striped and the broad-striped, so now it's time for the narrow-striped! This species is also known as the bokiboky, which certainly helps it stand out more from its striped cousins.

"Eight to 12 narrow, reddish-brown to dark brown stripes run along the back and sides of the body, from the shoulders to the base of the tail, giving the species its common name," notes ARKive. "The legs are quite delicate, and the toes, which bear longish claws, are partially webbed and have hairless soles."

This endangered species is found in the dry deciduous forests of western Madagascar. During the day, the narrow-striped mongoose is found in family groups of six to eight individuals all foraging together on the forest floor for insects and insect larvae, snails, worms, and sometimes small birds and mammals. By night, they take shelter in burrows or holes in trees.

As with the other carnivore species of Madagascar, habitat loss and predation by domestic dogs are both significant threats.

Durrell's vontsira (Salanoia durrelli)

This is the newest of Madagascar's species of carnivore to be discovered by science. First spotted by researchers with the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust in 2004, the species was described in 2010. It is shown to be closely related to the brown-tailed mongoose, but is morphologically distinct enough that it earned the distinction of being a unique species. The species is well adapted for life around an aquatic environment and is thought to eat mollusks and crustaceans.

When the discovery hit the news in 2010, Science Daily reported:

The small, cat-sized, speckled brown carnivore from the marshes of the Lac Alaotra wetlands in central eastern Madagascar weighs just over half a kilogramme and belongs to a family of carnivores only known from Madagascar. It is likely to be one of the most threatened carnivores in the world.

As quickly as it was discovered, it could be at risk of disappearing.

"The Lac Alaotra marshes are extremely threatened by agricultural expansion, burning and invasive plants and fish," noted Fidimalala Bruno Ralainasolo, a conservation biologist working for Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. "It is a highly significant site for wildlife and the resources it provides people, and Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust is working closely with local communities to ensure its sustainable use and to conserve Durrell's vontsira and other important species."

Eastern falanouc (Eupleres goudotii) and Western falanouc (Eupleres major)

Eupleres goudotii, or the eastern falanouc is the one of two subspecies, the other being the western falanouc or Eupleres major.
Eupleres goudotii, or the eastern falanouc is the one of two subspecies, the other being the western falanouc or Eupleres major. Public Domain/Wikipedia

The falanoucs are an unusual-looking lot, with a particularly long neck, a long slender head and a pointed nose that look incongruously delicate compared to its stocky body and bushy tail. The confusing characteristics don't end here.

"While the falanouc is a carnivore, and in appearance resembles a mongoose, its conical teeth so strongly resemble those of insectivores it was once classed as one," writes ARKive. Falanoucs enjoy feasting on earthworms and other invertebrates, using the long, narrow snout to root around leaf litter and strong forepaws and claw to dig their meals from out of the ground.

Falanouc spotted on a researcher's camera trap.
Falanouc spotted on a researcher's camera trap. Zach Farris/WCS Madagascar

There are two subspecies of falanouc - the eastern falanouc and the western falanouc. The eastern falanouc is between 25-50 percent smaller than its western counterpart, and has light brown or fawn underparts compared to the reddish or gray underparts of the western falanouc. They divvy up the island, as their names imply -- the eastern cousin sticks to the humid rainforests on the east of the island, while the western falanouc enjoys life in the dry deciduous forests on the west side of the island.

The eastern falanouc is listed by IUCN as Vulnerable, while the western falanouc is even worse off, being listed as endangered. Beyond the universal issue of habitat loss, a significant threat for the falanouc is being actively hunted by people for meat.

Malagasy civet (Fossa fossana)

The Malagasy or striped civet is also known as the fanaloka or jabady.
The Malagasy or striped civet is also known as the fanaloka or jabady. Joaquín Romero Redondo/Wikipedia

Last but not least, we have the Malagasy civet, also known as the spotted fanaloka. Along with the fossa, this is thought to be one of the two oldest of the eupleridae.

Endemic to the eastern and northwest areas of Madagascar, this species is about the size of a house cat, and looks a bit like one but with a more fox-like head. It gets its name from the markings the run along its sides — dark spots that can sometimes run together into stripes.

Active at night, the Malagasy civet is a solitary hunter, preferring to be alone as it hunts for frogs, birds, small rodents and other meaty meals found on the forest floor. When dawn rolls around, it takes shelter in rock crevasses, hollow logs and other hiding places.

Like its carnivore cousins, it has not escaped the risk of extinction. It is listed as Vulnerable by IUCN, and for familiar reasons: habitat loss and encroachment by humans.

Conservation efforts across Madagascar are needed to protect these amazingly adapted carnivores that have been evolving on the island for millions of years. But the issue is a complex one, revolving as much around forest preservation as economics and political stability for the people that call this place home.