The fossa is Madagascar’s top dog. Not that it’s actually a dog, of course, because Madagascar doesn’t have any wild dogs. Nor does it have any wild cats, bears, badgers, weasels or raccoons. In their absence, the top predator on the island is an elusive, medium-sized brown animal that looks a bit like a cross between an elongated puma and a giant otter.
In 1798, an eminent zoologist at the British Museum named George Shaw received a dried and most unusual specimen from a newly-established colony in Australia. This unknown creature had many strange qualities about it: the flat tail of a beaver, the body and soft, fine fur of an otter or mole, and, most outlandish of all, the flat bill of a duck that seemed to fit quite awkwardly onto its furry head.
In recent decades, Britain has seen the reintroductions and translocations of many animals, from red kites and great bustards to pine martens and natterjack toads. But the pioneering Scottish Beaver Trial has been, if anything, even more significant than any of those. It was the first time a licensed, government-sanctioned project returned an extinct mammal to the wild in the UK.
Beavers are some of the greatest construction workers in the mammalian world. They are dam-builders, lumberjacks, engineers, architects and transport planners all rolled into one. They have, perhaps, a bigger deliberate impact on their surroundings than any other animal besides humans, and they can easily reconfigure their environment to suit their needs.
With Easter now approaching, The Nature Nook is going to be taking a look at a few animals that are closely associated with this springtime holiday. The first to take centre stage is the European rabbit, which I’m sure we’ve all seen hopping around the countryside at one time or another. Perhaps unforgivably, rabbits weren’t included on Alex’s recent list of the cutest British animals, but they are undeniably adorable. And more than that, they have had a huge impact on our landscape, our wildlife, and even our lives over the centuries, as we will later see…