WEST AFRICAN POTTO
Geographic Distribution and Habitat
Across the tropical rainforests of western equatorial Africa, you’ll find the West African potto (Perodicticus potto), a nocturnal primate that has adapted to a variety of habitats. West African pottos live in the African countries of Benin, Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Togo. They are also assumed to inhabit parts of Gambia and Guinea-Bissau.
Their habitats include lowland tropical forests, swamp forests, coastal forests, montane forests, and plantations. As arboreal primates, they spend their days in the leaves of trees that are 16–98 feet (5–30 m) tall in primary and secondary forests. They’ve also adapted to live from sea level to an elevation of 6,853 feet (2,089 m).
The species is thought to be the first prosimian spotted by European traders. West African pottos are also called Bosman’s pottos in honor of Willem Bosman, a merchant for the Dutch East India Company who provided the earliest description and illustration of a potto in 1704. They’re also called “softly-softly” in some English-speaking parts of Africa.
Size, Weight, and Lifespan
West African pottos are sexually monomorphic, which means males and females are identical. However, since they cover such a wide range, there are regional differences in their body mass, pelage (fur/hair), and eyeshine color.
On average, they are between 12 and 15 inches (30.5 and 39 cm) long and their tails add another 1.4–4 inches (3.7–10 cm). In captivity, they can live up to 26 years, but their lifespan in the wild is unknown.
West African pottos are prosimians, the oldest group of primates and the ones that maintain the most primitive features, like grooming claws, furry faces, and wet noses. Other prosimians include angwantibos, lemurs, tarsiers, and lorises.
Pottos are small tree-dwellers. They have pointed faces and large forward-facing eyes that are equipped with night vision for nocturnal foraging. Their coat ranges from shades of gray to shades of brown, and it covers their entire bodies and forelimbs with the exception of their ears, fingers, and toes.
They have long slender bodies, forelimbs, and hindlimbs. Their tails are usually 1.4–4 inches (3.7–10 cm) long, which is short in comparison to their full body length of 12–15 inches (30.5–38 cm).
West African pottos are frugivores and opportunistic omnivores. Their diet primarily includes gums, fruits, and insects, but they will occasionally prey on small vertebrates like bats or birds. Their diet of insects and arthropods is distinct compared to other local animals. Competition for food is high and pottos have adapted to eat the prey that other animals find unappetizing. These include ants, spiders, spiny caterpillars, poisonous millipedes, and smelly beetles. They’ll also eat snails, eggs, slugs, insect larvae, and fungi. Like many other primates, they have seasonally diverse diets. During the dry seasons, gums are heavily consumed; during the wet season, fruits and small prey are more abundant.
The potto’s opportunistic diet is aided by several advantageous physiological features. Their stomachs are expandable and can hold up to 8% of their body weight. This enables them to eat large amounts of food quickly, which reduces the threat of being preyed upon when foraging. Pottos’ short index fingers are useful tools when grasping and capturing small prey. Their strong jaws have evolved to help them bite and chew large, tough fruits and stale chunks of plant gum.
Behavior and Lifestyle
West African pottos are nocturnal and arboreal. A big part of their lifestyle includes antipredator behaviors such as nocturnal activities, small group sizes, slow movements, and minimal vocalization.
Pottos are hidden from their predators, like the cat-like African palm civet, in the dense vegetation of the forests. But if they are confronted by a predator, they go into a “frozen” defensive posture that includes holding onto a branch with all limbs, arching the back, and tucking in their head below the shoulders—a defense mechanism similar to how armadillos roll into a ball. They also present a “scapular shield,” which includes elongated spines on their cervical vertebrae that are covered by skin and fur.
If the predator is still engaged, the potto will charge forward in an attempt to knock the other animal off the tree branch. Lastly, if that doesn’t work, the potto will release its limbs from the branch and fall to the ground.
West African pottos live a solitary lifestyle, with the exception of mothers and their offspring. They are nocturnal and spend their nights foraging and eating. During the day, they nestle in tree hollows among dense vegetation, which helps them stay hidden from predators.
Females and their young live and forage in home ranges averaging 14–22 acres (6–9 ha). Males maintain larger home ranges that overlap their female mating partners’ ranges, averaging 22–98 acres (9–40 ha). Both males and females forcefully defend their territories against other pottos of the same sex. Population densities are estimated to be 8 to 10 pottos per 247 acres (1 square km).
When it’s time to forage at night, mothers rest their young in a safe, covered spot in the canopy—a practice called “parking.” Before leaving, the mother applies a noxious glandular secretion (predator-repellent) to her offspring by grooming it into their fur.
West African pottos communicate in several ways. Like other prosimians, they exchange information about their reproductive state and territorial boundaries with chemical cues; they leave urine trails or mark tree branches with secretions from the glands under their tails. When encountering predators, they deter them with a toxic glandular secretion—often observed to be a distinct, curry-like odor.
Although they are not highly social primates, female pottos use several vocalizations to communicate with their young including a low “psic” sound.
West African pottos are polygynous, which means that males mate with multiple females. Males maintain home ranges that overlap several females. Male and female pottos often have courting rituals that they perform while both are hanging upside down on a branch. The rituals include activities like mutual grooming with claws and teeth, licking, and scent marking.
Breeding females produce one offspring per year with an average gestation period of 193–205 days. The breeding season differs throughout the many countries that pottos inhabit. For the most part, breeding occurs year-round.
The birth weight of a potto ranges between 1 and 1.8 ounces (30–52 g) and infants grow .11 ounces (3.19 g) per day. They are weaned at some time between 120 and 180 days, when there is the greatest abundance of fruit. They reach their adult weight and size by the time they are 14 months old and are sexually mature at 18 months.
Like most frugivores, West African pottos are helpful seed dispersers. They’re also a source of food for predators, such as leopards and African palm civets.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists pottos as Near Threatened (IUCN, 2020), appearing on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species.
West African pottos are a populous species that is abundant in a variety of African environments, including disturbed forests close to human developments. However, the human population in Africa is quickly growing and habitat destruction is a major threat to the pottos’ survival.
Between 1990 and 2015, pottos’ saw the range of forest cover decline by 21%. Three of the top 10 countries that saw the fastest decline in tree cover are home to pottos: Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Sierra Leonne saw the world’s second-largest loss at a rate of 12.6% annually.
Rapid human encroachment on West African pottos’ habitats has also increased the number of pottos that are hunted and traded to be used as bushmeat, as pets, or for medicinal practices.
Written by Maria DiCesare, January 2023