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.

Watch How a Bioluminescence Expert Catches a Giant Squid

Giant squid have been the object of fascination for millennia; they may have even provided the origin for the legendary Nordic sea monsters known as the Kraken. But no one had captured them in their natural environment on video until 2012, when marine biologist and bioluminescence expert Edith Widder snagged the first-ever images off Japan's Ogasawara Islands [PDF]. Widder figured out that previous dives—which tended to bring down a ton of gear and bright lights—were scaring all the creatures away. (Slate compares it to "the equivalent of coming into a darkened theater and shining a spotlight at the audience.")

In this clip from BBC Earth Unplugged, Widder explains how the innovative camera-and-lure combo she devised, known as the Eye-in-the-Sea, finally accomplished the job by using red lights (which most deep-sea creatures can't see) and an electronic jellyfish (called the e-jelly) with a flashy light show just right to lure in predators like Architeuthis dux. "I've tried a bunch of different things over the years to try to be able to talk to the animals," Widder says in the video, "and with the e-jelly, I feel like I'm finally making some progress."

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

Big Questions
Why Are There No Snakes in Ireland?

Legend tells of St. Patrick using the power of his faith to drive all of Ireland’s snakes into the sea. It’s an impressive image, but there’s no way it could have happened.

There never were any snakes in Ireland, partly for the same reason that there are no snakes in Hawaii, Iceland, New Zealand, Greenland, or Antarctica: the Emerald Isle is, well, an island.

Eightofnine via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Once upon a time, Ireland was connected to a larger landmass. But that time was an ice age that kept the land far too chilly for cold-blooded reptiles. As the ice age ended around 10,000 years ago, glaciers melted, pouring even more cold water into the now-impassable expanse between Ireland and its neighbors.

Other animals, like wild boars, lynx, and brown bears, managed to make it across—as did a single reptile: the common lizard. Snakes, however, missed their chance.

The country’s serpent-free reputation has, somewhat perversely, turned snake ownership into a status symbol. There have been numerous reports of large pet snakes escaping or being released. As of yet, no species has managed to take hold in the wild—a small miracle in itself.

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