Understanding the enigma of the cats of the forests of Madagascar

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  • The origin of Madagascar’s forest cats was uncertain. Now, a study is trying to shed some light on these strange animals.

    The origin of Madagascar's forest cats was uncertain. Now, a study is trying to shed some light on these strange animals.
    A forest cat is captured in a movement-activated "camera trap" in the Bezà Mahafaly Special Reserve in Madagascar - Credit: Michelle Sauther

    During her 30 years of work as a researcher in Madagascar, UC Boulder anthropology professor Michelle Sauther has had a number of chance encounters with a strange forest creature: a wild, oversized cat with a characteristic tabby coloring. “When I started working in Madagascar, I noticed that these cats all looked alike,” said Sauther, whose research focuses on primates. “They were tall and they were always the same color.” Scientists did not know where they came from, the island nation does not have native cats.

    Now, in a study published in Conservation Genetics, Sauther and his colleagues have relied on genetic data from dozens of these feral cats to narrow down an answer. According to their findings, the animals may not be newcomers to Madagascar at all. Instead, the cats appeared to have hitchhiked to the island on commercial vessels from Kuwait hundreds or even more than 1,000 years ago.

    The results offer a first step towards a better understanding of the threat that these strange felines could represent for the native species of Madagascar. They include the Fossa, a forest predator that looks like a feline but is more closely related to the mongoose.

    The case of the forest cat also highlights a global phenomenon, rich in furballs, which Sauther calls the “cat diaspora”. “The cats were with us everywhere we went,” said Sauther. “We can see this journey of humans and their pets going back quite far in time.”

    Chat tracking

    This trip also caused some pitfalls. Over the past century, hungry cats have fled to islands around the world. They even hunted local birds, mammals and reptiles to extinction in places like Hawaii, the West Indies and New Zealand.

    What is happening in Madagascar, however, is less clear.

    In part, that’s because researchers don’t know much about the island’s forest cats. Many Malagasy know the animals, which often sneak into their villages to eat their chickens. They call them “ampaha”, “fitoaty” and “kary” among other things and distinguish them from the population of companion cats on the island.

    Still, Sauther said she and other researchers have seen forest cats stalking lemurs, which worries him. She has a weakness in her heart for these “outsiders” of the primate world and many populations of lemurs are already in great difficulty in Madagascar.

    “The real question is: what are these cats doing?” according to Sauther. “Do they pose a threat to animals in Madagascar? Maybe they’re just part of the local ecology.” To find out, Sauther and his colleagues analyzed the DNA of 30 forest cats from sites in northern and southern Madagascar.

    And, to their surprise, the cats seemed to have traveled the island from far, far away. “They were probably among the maritime ships that came to Madagascar along these Arab routes,” Sauther said.

    Furry stowaways

    The team’s DNA results identified the cats as belonging to Felis catus, the same domesticated species that curls up in the knees of people around the world. But the animals also appeared to originate from the Arabian Sea region around Dubai, Oman and Kuwait. Sauther said the cats may have sneaked onto merchant ships following trade routes that had existed for more than 1,000 years.

    “They came down along the east coast of Africa. They stopped at the islands of Lamu and Pate, and then all it took was one hop to get to Madagascar, ”said Sauther. While the team cannot determine exactly when the cats first arrived on the island, Sauther believes they may have been residents for a while and may have become a normal part of the local forests.

    “That doesn’t mean they aren’t a threat, but we have to understand their biology and their history to understand how we do in terms of conservation policy,” Sauther said. For now, she’s just glad to have the answer to a question that has bothered her for decades.

    “This study answered a mystery that not only me, but many researchers in Madagascar have questioned,” Sauther said. “We now know that these mysterious cats are domestic cats with a really interesting story.”

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