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Guérin Nicolas
Guérin Nicolas

8 Close, But Not Quite Cats

Guérin Nicolas
Guérin Nicolas

In the taxonomic nomenclature, which has changed a lot since I learned the system, there is a level wedged between order and family called either “suborder” or “superfamily.” The order of Carnivore has two suborders; Caniformia is one, which means “dog-like." It includes dogs, of course, but also bears, skunks, raccoons, seals, and walruses. The other is Feliformia, which mean “cat-like.” That includes the family Felidae, which is cats. But besides cats (and strangely, hyenas), Feliformia includes species you may not be familiar with.

1. Fossa

Photograph by Ran Kirlian.

The Fossa (Cryptoprocta ferox) lives in Madagascar. It is related to the mongoose, but looks more like a cat, and in fact has been compared to a small cougar. The largest carnivore in Madagascar, it eats lemurs and other small animals. As a female Fossa matures, she goes through a stage of “masculinization,” in which her genitals elongate and resemble a spiny penis. Fossas are considered a vulnerable species and are protected in reserves, but are still hunted and eaten in some communities. Because they are widespread and claim a large individual territory, it is hard to get meaningful numbers on their population. Some natives consider them vermin due to their tendency to prey on chickens and small livestock.

2. Falanouc

Photograph by Mariomassone.

The Falanouc (Eupleres goudotii) also lives in Madagascar and belongs to the same family as the Fossa, but resembles a mongoose more than its cousin. Its teeth are different from most of its taxonomically close relatives because the Falanouc eats mainly insects and earthworms.

3. African Civet

Photograph by Николай Усик.

There are over a dozen species of civet in Africa and Asia belonging to several genera. What they have in common is their anal musk glands, which they use to mark territory and attract mates. Civets look like cats with the elongated bodies of otters or weasels. The African Civet (Civettictis civetta) is the most common species and the one from which perfumers traditionally obtain musk -although more recently, the synthetic civetone is used instead. African Civets are found in the savannah, forests, and rainforests of Africa. They have masked face markings like a raccoon.

4. Mongoose

Photograph by ChrisHodgesUK.

The name Mongoose refers to 29 different species in the family Herpestidae, which live in southern Europe, southern Asia, and in Africa. They are famous for their ability to fight snakes. The mongoose has receptors for acetylcholine that reject the neurotoxins in snake venom much like snakes themselves have. Therefore, they are immune to snake venom. Another distinctive trait is the mongoose’s horizontally-shaped pupils. Incidentally, when you encounter two or more of these animals, the plural is mongooses, but don’t laugh when someone uses mongeese.

5. Linsang

Photograph by Daderot.

There are four species of linsang, two in Africa, and two in Asia. The Asiatic Linsang (Prionodon) comes in two flavors: banded or spotted. That describes their body markings; both have long striped tails. The Banded linsang is the rarest of all the civets. It resembles a weasel or ferret, with a longer tail and more catlike teeth, and lives in the treetops of the rainforest. Not much is known about their lifestyles.

6. Binturong

Photograph by Flickr user Tim Strater.

The Binturong (Arctictis binturong), also called the bearcat, is found in Southeast Asia. It looks and moves like a small round bear, and is a distant relative to genets, palm civets, and the linsang. Despite belonging to the order Carnivora, the Binturong eats mostly fruit. They will also eat meat, eggs, fish, and insects when the opportunity arises. Binturongs spend most of their time in trees, which is made easier by their ankles, which can turn 180 degrees, and their prehensile tails, which can grip like a fifth limb.

7. Genet

Photograph by Guérin Nicolas.

The Genet (Genetta genetta) is often mistaken for a cat, although it is more closely related to the mongoose. The couple of dozen species range throughout Africa, and the Common Genet also lives in Europe. Genets are sometimes kept as house pets. Earlier this year, a camera trap caught a genet hitching a ride on a buffalo and a rhinoceros in South Africa. It was determined that it was the same genet, and it had made a habit of riding other animals on different occasions.

8. Meerkat

Photograph by Flickr user Joachim Huber.

Not all Feliformia are obscure. We all know meerkats (Suricata suricatta) for their charming habit of scanning the horizon for danger as if they were posing for the camera, and for a Disney character named Timon. Meerkats are mongooses of the family Herpestidae, of the genus Suricata. What sets them apart is their tendency to live in clans of 20 to 50 animals, and that habit of standing on their back feet in order to see across the African plain. Meerkats are social and loyal to the group, often babysitting and even nursing each other’s young.

These are just a few of the many species of Feliformia. Others include the hyena, aardwolf, and of course, all the members of the family Felidae, which are cats.

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Tony Karumba, AFP/Getty Images
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How a Pregnant Rhino Named Victoria Could Save an Entire Subspecies
Sudan, the last male member of the northern white rhino subspecies, while being shipped to Kenya in 2009
Sudan, the last male member of the northern white rhino subspecies, while being shipped to Kenya in 2009
Tony Karumba, AFP/Getty Images

The last male northern white rhino died at a conservancy in Kenya earlier this year, prompting fears that the subspecies was finally done for after decades of heavy poaching. Scientists say there's still hope, though, and they're banking on a pregnant rhino named Victoria at the San Diego Zoo, according to the Associated Press.

Victoria is actually a southern white rhino, but the two subspecies are related. Only two northern white rhinos survive, but neither of the females in Kenya are able to reproduce. Victoria was successfully impregnated through artificial insemination, and if she successfully carries her calf to term in 16 to 18 months, scientists say she might be able to serve as a surrogate mother and propagate the northern white rhino species.

But how would that work if no male northern rhinos survive? As the AP explains, scientists are working to recreate northern white rhino embryos using genetic technology. The San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research has the frozen cell lines of 12 different northern white rhinos, which can be transformed into stem cells—and ultimately, sperm and eggs. The sperm of the last northern white male rhino, Sudan, was also saved before he died.

Scientists have been monitoring six female southern white rhinos at the San Diego Zoo to see if any emerge as likely candidates for surrogacy. However, it's not easy to artificially inseminate a rhino, and there have been few successful births in the past. There's still a fighting chance, though, and scientists ultimately hope they'll be able to build up a herd of five to 15 northern white rhinos over the next few decades.

[h/t Time Magazine]

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(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.
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The Time Carl Akeley Killed a Leopard With His Bare Hands
(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.
(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.

Carl Akeley had plenty of close encounters with animals in his long career as a naturalist and taxidermist. There was the time a bull elephant had charged him on Mount Kenya, nearly crushing him; the time he was unarmed and charged by three rhinos who missed him, he said later, only because the animals had such poor vision; and the time the tumbling body of a silverback gorilla he'd just shot almost knocked him off a cliff. This dangerous tradition began on his very first trip to Africa, where, on an otherwise routine hunting trip, the naturalist became the prey.

It was 1896. Following stints at Ward’s Natural Science Establishment and the Milwaukee Public Museum, Akeley, 32, had just been appointed chief taxidermist for Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, and he was tasked with gathering new specimens to bolster the 3-year-old museum's fledgling collections. After more than four months of travel and numerous delays, the expedition had reached the plains of Ogaden, a region of Ethiopia, where Akeley hunted for specimens for days without success.

Then, one morning, Akeley managed to shoot a hyena shortly after he left camp. Unfortunately, “one look at his dead carcass was enough to satisfy me that he was not as desirable as I had thought, for his skin was badly diseased,” he later wrote in his autobiography, In Brightest Africa. He shot a warthog, a fine specimen, but what he really wanted was an ostrich—so he left the carcass behind, climbed a termite hill to look for the birds, then took off after a pair he saw in the tall grass.

But the ostriches eluded him at every turn, so he returned to camp and grabbed the necessary tools to cut off the head of his warthog. However, when he and a “pony boy” got to the spot where he’d left the carcass, all that remained was a bloodstain. “A crash in the bushes at one side led me in a hurry in that direction and a little later I saw my pig's head in the mouth of a hyena travelling up the slope of a ridge out of range,” Akeley wrote. “That meant that my warthog specimen was lost, and, having got no ostriches, I felt it was a pretty poor day.”

As the sun began to set, Akeley and the boy turned back to camp. “As we came near to the place where I had shot the diseased hyena in the morning, it occurred to me that perhaps there might be another hyena about the carcass, and feeling a bit ‘sore’ at the tribe for stealing my warthog, I thought I might pay off the score by getting a good specimen of a hyena for the collections,” he wrote. But that carcass was gone, too, with a drag trail in the sand leading into the bush.

Akeley heard a sound, and, irritated, “did a very foolish thing,” firing into the bush without seeing what he was shooting at. He knew, almost immediately, that he'd made a mistake: The answering snarl told him that what he’d fired at was not a hyena at all, but a leopard.

The taxidermist began thinking of all the things he knew about the big cats. A leopard, he wrote,

“... has all the qualities that gave rise to the ‘nine lives’ legend: To kill him you have got to kill him clear to the tip of his tail. Added to that, a leopard, unlike a lion, is vindictive. A wounded leopard will fight to a finish practically every time, no matter how many chances it has to escape. Once aroused, its determination is fixed on fight, and if a leopard ever gets hold, it claws and bites until its victim is in shreds. All this was in my mind, and I began looking about for the best way out of it, for I had no desire to try conclusions with a possibly wounded leopard when it was so late in the day that I could not see the sights of my rifle.”

Akeley beat a hasty retreat. He’d return the next morning, he figured, when he could see better; if he’d wounded the leopard, he could find it again then. But the leopard had other ideas. It pursued him, and Akeley fired again, even though he couldn’t see enough to aim. “I could see where the bullets struck as the sand spurted up beyond the leopard. The first two shots went above her, but the third scored. The leopard stopped and I thought she was killed.”

The leopard had not been killed. Instead, she charged—and Akeley’s magazine was empty. He reloaded the rifle, but as he spun to face the leopard, she leapt on him, knocking it out of his hands. The 80-pound cat landed on him. “Her intention was to sink her teeth into my throat and with this grip and her forepaws hang to me while with her hind claws she dug out my stomach, for this pleasant practice is the way of leopards,” Akeley wrote. “However, happily for me, she missed her aim.” The wounded cat had landed to one side; instead of Akeley’s throat in her mouth, she had his upper right arm, which had the fortuitous effect of keeping her hind legs off his stomach.

It was good luck, but the fight of Akeley’s life had just begun.

Using his left hand, he attempted to loosen the leopard’s hold. “I couldn't do it except little by little,” he wrote. “When I got grip enough on her throat to loosen her hold just a little she would catch my arm again an inch or two lower down. In this way I drew the full length of the arm through her mouth inch by inch.”

He felt no pain, he wrote, “only of the sound of the crushing of tense muscles and the choking, snarling grunts of the beast.” When his arm was nearly free, Akeley fell on the leopard. His right hand was still in her mouth, but his left hand was still on her throat. His knees were on her chest and his elbows in her armpits, “spreading her front legs apart so that the frantic clawing did nothing more than tear my shirt.”

It was a scramble. The leopard tried to twist around and gain the advantage, but couldn’t get purchase on the sand. “For the first time,” Akeley wrote, “I began to think and hope I had a chance to win this curious fight.”

He called for the boy, hoping he’d bring a knife, but received no response. So he held on to the animal and “continued to shove the hand down her throat so hard she could not close her mouth and with the other I gripped her throat in a stranglehold.” He bore down with his full weight on her chest, and felt a rib crack. He did it again—another crack. “I felt her relax, a sort of letting go, although she was still struggling. At the same time I felt myself weakening similarly, and then it became a question as to which would give up first.”

Slowly, her struggle ceased. Akeley had won. He lay there for a long time, keeping the leopard in his death grip. “After what seemed an interminable passage of time I let go and tried to stand, calling to the pony boy that it was finished.” The leopard, he later told Popular Science Monthly, had then shown signs of life; Akeley used the boy’s knife to make sure it was really, truly dead.

Akeley’s arm was shredded, and he was weak—so weak that he couldn’t carry the leopard back to camp. “And then a thought struck me that made me waste no time,” he told Popular Science. “That leopard has been eating the horrible diseased hyena I had killed. Any leopard bite is liable to give one blood poison, but this particular leopard’s mouth must have been exceptionally foul.”

He and the boy must have been quite the sight when they finally made it back to camp. His companions had heard the shots, and figured Akeley had either faced off with a lion or the natives; whatever the scenario, they figured Akeley would prevail or be defeated before they could get to him, so they kept on eating dinner. But when Akeley appeared, with “my clothes ... all ripped, my arm ... chewed into an unpleasant sight, [with] blood and dirt all over me,” he wrote in In Brightest Africa, “my appearance was quite sufficient to arrest attention.”

He demanded all the antiseptics the camp had to offer. After he'd been washed with cold water, “the antiseptic was pumped into every one of the innumerable tooth wounds until my arm was so full of the liquid that an injection in one drove it out of another,” he wrote. “During the process I nearly regretted that the leopard had not won.”

When that was done, Akeley was taken to his tent, and the dead leopard was brought in and laid out next to his cot. Her right hind leg was wounded—which, he surmised, had come from his first shot into the brush, and was what had thrown off her pounce—and she had a flesh wound in the back of her neck where his last shot had hit her, “from the shock of which she had instantly recovered.”

Not long after his close encounter with the leopard, the African expedition was cut short when its leader contracted malaria, and Akeley returned to Chicago. The whole experience, he wrote to a friend later, transported him back to a particular moment at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, which he’d visited after creating taxidermy mounts for the event. “As I struggled to wrest my arm from the mouth of the leopard I recalled vividly a bronze at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, depicting the struggle between a man and bear, the man’s arm in the mouth of the bear,” he wrote. “I had stood in front of this bronze one afternoon with a doctor friend and we discussed the probable sensations of a man in this predicament, wondering whether or not the man would be sensible to the pain of the chewing and the rending of his flesh by the bear. I was thinking as the leopard tore at me that now I knew exactly what the sensations were, but that unfortunately I would not live to tell my doctor friend.”

In the moment, though, there had been no pain, “just the joy of a good fight,” Akeley wrote, “and I did live to tell my [doctor] friend all about it.”

Additional source: Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, and One Man's Quest to Preserve the World's Great Animals

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