Madagascar’s mysterious, lemur-eating cats started as ship stowaways
On the trail floor that day in 2009 lay the sprawled body of a white-furred sifaka, a kind of lemur. “I touched the bottom of his foot,” said Michelle Sauther, a biological anthropologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “It was still warm.” Then she heard a rustle. Looking up, she caught a glimpse of a tiger-striped feline dissolving back into the forest—one of Madagascar’s “forest cats.”
Cats didn’t evolve on the island, and the history of these elusive felines—twice the size of house cats—has long been a mystery. Now, researchers have revealed the cats’ origin story: They descend from domestic kitties that hopped off Arabian trading ships perhaps more than 1000 years ago. By pinpointing them as a separate population that has spent centuries adapting to Madagascar, the work may offer a first step toward limiting the toll these relentless hunters take on the island’s rich biodiversity.
With males averaging more than 0.6 meters long, the forest cats have striped tabby coats, straight tails, and a voracious appetite for native birds, snakes, rodents, and lemurs. They also compete with endemic carnivores like mongooses, said Zachary Farris, a biologist at Appalachian State University who was unaffiliated with the research team.
The felines could be the feral descendants of the domestic cat Felis catus brought to the island several hundred years ago by Europeans; if so, controlling domestic village cats might limit the population in the forest. Or they might be descendants of small wildcats “that had somehow gotten over here from mainland Africa,” Sauther says.
But Sauther’s team uncovered a different story when it sampled DNA from the blood of forest cats trapped using live mice or beef parts as bait. Leslie Lyons, an expert in cat genomics at the University of Missouri, Columbia, helped compare the forest cat genomes with those of cats around the world. The closest match: domestics from Arabian Sea locales such as Kuwait and Oman, the researchers reported at the end of February in the journal Conservation Genetics. Like other domestic cats that went wild, including Maine coons and feral cats in Australia, the Middle Eastern cats swelled in size in their new home, Lyons notes.
The Arabian origin “makes sense,” said Asia Murphy, a Ph.D. student at Pennsylvania State University, University Park, who studies the fossa, an endemic carnivore that competes with forest cats. “Madagascar is a pretty special place when it comes to cultural mixing.”
Linguistic and cultural evidence attests to Arabic influence on the island, linked to Indian Ocean trade routes that stretched from Arabian ports to Madagascar starting in the second millennium B.C.E. Cats employed as mousers on those ships could have deserted at port.
Another invasive species supports that scenario. Arabian ships also transported Indian civets to the island around 900 C.E. for the oil produced in their anal glands, which was used in perfumes. “Boats transporting civets [likely] were also carrying cats,” Farris said.
More genomics work could tighten the timeline of when the cats arrived or tell the story of another forest cat variety, called the fitoaty, that researchers haven’t yet sampled. And knowing the cats aren’t just recent runaways suggests trapping in the forest, rather than simply neutering village cats, might be the quickest way to control them, Murphy said.
For Lyons, this record of Arabian Sea cats sailing to Madagascar adds to the global story of cat dispersal. “People think about dogs all the time,” she says, “but the cat has been a very silent partner in our migration.”