If I was to name, preferably at some sort of ecological-metaphorical gunpoint, the hands-down slickest small carnivore in the Annamites, odds are I would name the yellow-throated marten (Martes flavigula). Sure, sure, on some days Owston’s civet (Chrotogale owstoni) would get the nod, but I like to think that, on average, this jungle phantom would get my vote. The yellow-throated marten is a medium-sized carnivore closely related to ferrets and weasels. It’s long, streamlined body, which includes a tail more than half its body length, belies a powerfully built physique. The most striking aspect of its appearance is its unique coat coloring: a chocolate-colored head abruptly gives way to a burnished golden body that then fades again into dark hind legs and tail. But even within this general pattern there is subtle variation: look closely and you can see that the feet shine a deep coal black and that the hair on the back of the neck burn a brighter gold that is tinged with orange overtones. This is a predator that is as visually arresting as it is ecologically stunning. Its muscular body was built to take down any small prey unfortunate enough to cross paths with it: from mice to rabbits to lizards to snakes to frogs to ground-dwelling birds, almost anything is fair game. It has even been reported to feed on small ungulates, particularly in the northern parts of its range. It’s a good thing that yellow-throated martens don’t grow to be the size of tigers, or else we’d all be in trouble. This varied and adaptable diet partly explains the diverse habitats where it lives and its wide distribution. The yellow-throated martin ranges from the cold dry forests of Pakistan to the wind-swept taiga of the Russian Far East to the subtropical forests of China and down into the tropical jungles of Indochina and the Sunda shelf. And of course, it is found in the Annamite forests that I call home.
Wherever it is found, the yellow-throated marten is essentially a forest species. Because large amounts of its habitat have been lost, especially in Southeast Asia, which in recent decades has experienced the most rapid rate of deforestation in the world, it is likely that populations have declined. In heavily hunted areas, which includes large sections of Laos and Vietnam, populations are probably well below carrying capacity. However, unlike other small carnivores we’ve covered in Species Spotlight, such as the large Indian civet or marbled cat, the yellow-throated marten is still faring well overall. Stable populations exist in a number of protected areas across several Asian countries. Because of this the yellow-throated marten is listed by the IUCN as Least Concern. It’s satisfying to know that, unlike many of the species that roam the Annamite jungles, this small carnivore is doing OK from a conservation standpoint, and will likely be stalking these forests for many years to come.
I always hope that I’ll glimpse a yellow-throated marten during my fieldwork: a brief flash of auburn and ebony darting into the foliage. Alas, so far it hasn’t happened, though I remain hopeful that if I spend enough time wandering around the jungles here I will be rewarded with a sighting. But I have experienced the next best thing: a stunning photo taken by a camera trap that I set deep in the jungles of Laos. The photo, a black and white infrared image, is shown below. It’s one of the most spectacular camera trap photos I’ve ever gotten, whether from the jungles of Southeast Asia, or from my earlier work in South America. There is something beautiful and haunting in it. It’s indescribable, so I won’t even try. Just take a look for yourself.