The largest member of the Loridae family (lorises and pottos) (5), the nocturnal, tree-dwelling potto (Perodicticus potto) is a fairly compact and robust primate, with a dense woolly coat and a tail that, while relatively short, is longer than that of other lorisids (3) (6) (7). Coat colour varies from reddish brown to blackish or brownish grey, slightly lighter on the underparts (3) (5) (6) (8), while young adults may have silvery-grey guard hairs on the back and a black ‘mantle’ on the shoulders (9). The snout is slender but short (5) (7) (9) and, like other Loridae, the head is round, with small, rounded ears and large eyes, which give good night vision (3) (5) (6) (7). Although the body and limbs are relatively long and slender, the potto’s thick fur and characteristic hunched posture mean that this is not usually noticeable (5). The four subspecies of potto vary in size and colouration, and may be distinct enough to warrant separate species status (5).
A unique feature of the potto is the bony processes that project from the neck vertebrae between the shoulder blades, forming a spiny ‘shield’ on the neck, covered in a layer of highly sensitive skin and thick fur (3) (5) (6) (8). The exact function of this is debated; it may help protect the potto against predators while it forages with its head down, or may play a role in social behaviour, being highly sensitive to touch (3) (6). Pottos have a powerful grasp, with pincer-like hands and feet that have a specialised arrangement of blood vessels, allowing the potto to maintain its grip for long periods of time (3) (5) (6) (8), a perfect adaptation for life in the trees. Pottos usually climb with a slow, deliberate movement, rather than leaping or jumping (6) (10). To aid grip, the index finger is reduced to a mere knob, the large thumb is opposable to the other toes, and the wrist and ankle joints are highly mobile (5) (6) (8) (10). All the digits have nails except the second digit of each foot, which possesses a ‘toilet claw’, used in grooming (3) (5) (8) (9). A comb-like arrangement of teeth in the lower jaw also plays an important role in grooming, and a special cartilaginous ‘brush’ on the underside of the tongue fits between these teeth, serving to clean out hair and particles (8).
- Also known as
- Bosman’s potto.
- Poto De Bosman.
- Head-body length: 30 - 42 cm (2) (3)
- Tail length: 5 - 10 cm (2)
- 0.8 - 1.6 kg (2)
The potto generally lives and forages in trees at heights of between 5 and 30 metres, spending the day sleeping curled in the foliage (5) (6). The diet shows distinct seasonal variation, comprising mainly fruits, as well as insects, nectar, snails and even small vertebrates, and gums during drier periods (2) (3) (5) (6). Eggs and fungi may also be taken (2) (5). If faced with a predator, the potto may grip a branch with the hands and feet, tuck the head into the chest to present the bony ‘shield’ on the neck, and sway from side to side while making threat grunts. The potto may then thrust forwards in an attempt to dislodge the predator, or even lunge at it with an open mouth (5).
Pottos are mainly solitary, although they may show some degree of sociality (1) (5) (6) (13). This species exhibits a dispersed social structure in which individuals associate on a regular, but not necessarily daily basis, and rely on olfactory communication (scent) to a greater degree than the more gregarious diurnal primates (5). A study of P. p. edwardsi in Gabon found the home range of a male to overlap those of several females (2) (3) (6), indicating a dispersed ‘unimale-multifemale’ social structure. Interestingly, a later study in Cameroon on the same subspecies reported male and female home ranges to be of similar size, with the most range overlap and social interactions occurring between ‘paired’ males and females, indicating a dispersed ‘unimale-unifemale’ social structure (14).
Female pottos usually give birth to a single infant each year, after a gestation period of about 180 to 205 days (1) (6) (7). The young potto is born white or pale cream, with blue eyes (5) (9), and is carried on the female’s belly or left hidden on a branch until it is weaned at about four to five months (6) (7). Pottos reach sexual maturity at between 9 to 18 months (6) (9) and may live for up to 11 years in the wild, or even to 26 years in captivity (7) (8). Young males disperse when mature, while young females usually share parts of the adult female’s range (2) (6).
The potto has a wide distribution across the tropical forest belt of western, central and eastern Africa, from Sierra Leone and Guinea east to Kenya, at elevations of 600 to 2,300 metres (1) (2) (11). P. p. potto occurs in West Africa from Guinea and Sierra Leone to Nigeria, P. p. ibeanus to the south of the Ubangi River and north of the Congo River in Democratic Republic of the Congo, and eastwards to Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda and southwest Kenya, and P. p. edwardsi from the Niger River in Nigeria south to northern Angola and eastwards, south of the Congo River, through Democratic Republic of the Congo (1) (5) (11) (12). P. p. stockleyi is known only from Mount Kenya, at an elevation of 1,830 metres (1) (12), about 210 kilometres from the nearest other known potto population (5).
Inhabiting lowland, swamp, riverine and montane forest, the potto is most common in secondary forest and along forest margins, and is also found in primary forest and even in disturbed forest near human settlements (1) (2) (5). Pottos may also venture out into isolated trees in savanna or cultivated areas (9).
The potto is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1), and listed on Appendix II of CITES (4). Four subspecies are currently recognised: Perodicticus potto potto (western potto), Perodicticus potto ibeanus (eastern potto) and Perodicticus potto edwardsi (central potto or Milne-Edwards’ potto) are classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1), while Perodicticus potto stockleyi (Mount Kenya potto) is a recently described subspecies known only from a single specimen and as such is classified as Data Deficient (DD) on the IUCN Red List (1).
The potto’s tree-dwelling, nocturnal and secretive lifestyle may help protect it from hunting, and traps set for other animals are not usually a threat, as the potto prefers to stay high in the trees rather than descend to the ground (11). However, hunting for food does occur in some areas (5) (7) (11) (15) and pottos are also occasionally electrocuted on electricity cables (11).
Despite this, the potto remains widespread, even in disturbed and secondary forest, and is not thought to be undergoing large population declines (1). However, local declines may be taking place due to habitat loss, as a result of logging and intensive agriculture (1) (5) (11). Despite its ability to survive in disturbed areas, the potto cannot survive in habitats completely devoid of trees (15).
The potto is listed under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), meaning that international trade in pottos should be carefully monitored and controlled (4). It is also protected under Class B of the African Convention, which only allows it to be hunted, killed or captured with special authorisation (16), and it occurs in many protected areas throughout its range (1). A priority for potto conservation is to determine the range, abundance and conservation status of P. p. stockleyi, which is likely to exist only at low densities or have a highly localised distribution, or may even already be extinct (12).
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For more information on potto and loris conservation see:
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- Active during the day.
- The state of being pregnant; the period from conception to birth.
- Guard hair
- In some mammals, long, coarse hairs that protect the softer layer of fur below.
- Home range
- The area occupied by an animal during routine activities, which is not actively defended.
- Montane forest
- Forest occurring in the montane zone, a zone of cool upland slopes below the tree line dominated by large evergreen trees.
- Active at night.
- Referring to a digit, (thumb or toe), that can be turned so that its pad makes contact with the pad of each of the other digits on the same limb.
- Primary forest
- Forest that has remained undisturbed for a long time and has reached a mature condition.
- Secondary forest
- Forest that has re-grown after a major disturbance, such as fire or timber harvest, but has not yet reached the mature state of primary forest.
- A population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.
- Animals with a backbone.
IUCN Red List (December, 2008)
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Ankel-Simons, F. (1999) Primate Anatomy: An Introduction. Academic Press, San Diego, California.
CITES (December, 2008)
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Burton, M. and Burton, R. (2002) International Wildlife Encyclopedia. Third Edition. Marshall Cavendish, New York.
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Oates, J.F. (1984) The niche of the potto, Perodicticus potto. International Journal of Primatology, 5(1): 51-61.
Conservation Database for Lorises and Pottos (December, 2008)
Butynski, T.M. and de Jong, Y.A. (2007) Distribution of the potto Perodicticus potto (Primates: Lorisidae) in Eastern Africa, with a description of a new subspecies from Mount Kenya. Journal of East African Natural History, 96(2): 113-147.
Pimley, E.R., Bearder, S.K. and Dixson, A.F. (2005) Social organisation of the Milne-Edward’s potto. American Journal of Primatology, 66(4): 317-330.
Pimley, E.R., Bearder, S.K. and Dixson, A.F. (2005) Home range analysis of Perodicticus potto edwardsi and Sciurocheirus cameronensis. International Journal of Primatology, 26(1): 191-206.
Wolfheim, J.H. (1983) Primates of the World: Distribution, Abundance and Conservation. University of Washington Press, London.
African Convention on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (January, 2009)