Makira Lessons: The Fitoaty (aka the Creature with Seven Livers)

Originally posted on Medium 02/14/17.

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“Are you sure?”

The guides talked amongst themselves in Malagasy. I sat patiently, looking at the picture on my laptop that had caused such excitement. The bench made of two lashed together logs hurt my butt, but I was too tired by a morning of checking our camera traps to move. The sun tapped audibly on the green tarp above. It would be another warm, dry day in the rainforest.

Finally, Donah turned back to me and said, “Yes. That is the fitoaty.”

This was it. This was the mysterious fitoaty. We all looked at the picture again.

“Huh,” I said.

Deep in the Madagascar rainforest lies a mystery…

Deep in the Madagascar rainforest lies a mystery…

“They found a new carnivore in Masoala,” Zach said, his back to me, two years prior.

“No shit,” I said, swiveling around in my chair.

“Just sent you the paper.”

I opened the email, began skimming the paper eagerly [1]. Very recently, a new mongoose-like carnivore (a vontsira) had been found in some wetlands a little further south of Masoala and Makira — Madagascar’s largest, and largely unexplored, protected areas. Two new mouse lemur species had been described in Makira, and researchers tripped over undescribed reptiles and frogs every week it seemed. The idea of a new carnivore being found in Masoala was entirely believable.

A map of our study region, the Masoala-Makira protected area complex.

A map of our study region, the Masoala-Makira protected area complex.

Maybe it’s the fosa mainty, I thought. Malagasy for ‘black fosa’, the fosa mainty was the stuff of legends: larger than the “regular” fosa (or fosa mena, red fosa), only found deep in the forests, and black as night. Word was that the fosa mainty was actually the extinct giant fosa, which was only known from subfossils. While the fosa is a ferocious predator, able to take down lemurs almost twice its size, the giant fosa would’ve been able to hunt Madagascar’s extinct lemurs, some of which got to the size of gorillas.

Yes, the belief in giant fosa was edging into cryptozoology territory. But if there were any cryptids still living, it wouldn’t be amiss for them to be hiding out in the unexplored wilds of Madagascar.

I flew over the introduction. The new carnivore was known as the fitoaty, Malagasy for ‘seven livers’. Its meat was supposed to be poisonous, its eyes red-orange. Next to the results was a line drawing of the new carnivore. I stopped. Those ears. The face.

I’d seen the fitoaty before.

We had pictures of it.

“Zach…”

“You saw the drawing.”

“It’s…it’s…”

The fitoaty walks along a forest trail…

The fitoaty walks along a forest trail…

“Donah, this is a bosy,” I said, using the Malagasy word for cat.

The guides laughed. Donah shook his head. “This is a fitoaty.”

We all looked at the picture again. It was very obviously a cat, but I wondered if they weren’t right to have a different name for it. The cat was very leggy, the face narrow. And then there was that solid black coat. Although there are feral cats all over Madagascar, they are typically of a gray tabby pattern. The black feral cat is unique to northeastern Madagascar.

Zach and Hailey Boone had looked into the differences between the gray tabbies and the fitoaty, and got some intriguing results. Although cameras could only show so much, the fitoaty seemed much leggier than the gray tabby. The fitoaty was more common across our study sites. Finally, gray tabbies were found closer to villages, while the fitoaty was found deeper in the forests.

This last result was of particular interest to us. Cats are oh-so-good at causing species to go extinct. Little murder-beasts that they are, it is believed that they are the cause of at least 14% of bird, reptile, and mammal extinctions on islands [2]. The fact that the fitoaty was roaming around deep in the forest meant that it would have more opportunity to eat and/or compete with native species. And because the majority of Madagascar’s wildlife can only be found in Madagascar; once they go extinct there, they are gone for good.

The fitoaty’s body size compared to: the fosa (the largest native carnivore; top right), the fanaloka (a medium-sized native carnivore; middle right), and ring-tailed vontsiras (a small native carnivore; bottom right).

The fitoaty’s body size compared to: the fosa (the largest native carnivore; top right), the fanaloka (a medium-sized native carnivore; middle right), and ring-tailed vontsiras (a small native carnivore; bottom right).

It was after lunch, and the guides were all resting in whatever shade could be found. Malagasy music floated softly from the cheap radio. I lay on the log bench, looking to my left, at the forested mountain where the picture had come from. Little did I know that, within three weeks, we’d get a picture of a fitoaty with what appeared to be a kitten in its mouth. They were breeding.

A fitoaty with what appears to be a kitten.

A fitoaty with what appears to be a kitten.

We still know very little about the effects the fitoaty are having on native species in Makira. We don’t know how many there are, what species they are eating, what habitats they are using, or even why they are black instead of tabby. But if they are like cats all over the world, their presence spells trouble for Makira’s native species. Of that, we are sure.

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In ‘Makira Lessons’, a series in the making, I’ll sum up the main findings of my published Madagascar research — and any bonus unpublishable tidbits— in a way that is accessible to everyone. If you have any questions, feel free to hit me up on twitter or contact me.

The paper that inspired this post is:

Feral cats and the fitoaty: first population assessment of the black forest cat in Madagascar’s rainforests (pdf).

[1] Borgerson, C. 2013. The fitoaty: an unidentified carnivoran species from the Masoala peninsula of MadagascarMadagascar Conservation and Development 8(2): 81–85.

[2] Medina, F. M. et al. 2011. A global review of the impacts of invasive cats on island endangered vertebratesGlobal Change Biology 17: 3503–3510.