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Posts Tagged ‘domestic cat’

felis lybica

As I have noted many times on this blog, I think that the only way to correctly classify the domestic dog is as form of gray wolf. I am okay with regarding them as a divergent subspecies, but Pierotti and Fogg make a pretty good case that we really cannot define a domestic dog subspecies, because that subspecies would have to include everything from truly feral dogs to pekingese. I think that the wolf genome comparisons also show that creating a special dog or dingo species distorts the monophyly of Canis lupus.

Some will argue with me on this one, but you will have to use a species concept that is totally not based in cladistics or one that allows for a huge amount of gene flow between the two species.  An ecological species concept can work, but then you’re going to be forced to split up Canis lupus into many different species. Arabian wolves are simply aren’t ecologically equivalent to arctic wolves. So I think creating a special dog species is problematic from a systematics perspective.

However, I’ve been asked several times what I think about how to classify the domestic cat. Almost every authority in cats uses the name Felis catus to describe the domestic cat, while Canis familiaris is slowly being replaced by Canis lupus familiaris.

The revised taxonomy of Felidae  that was released in 2017 does change how we classify wildcats. Classically, we recognized a single species of wildcat, Felis silvestris. The domestic cat is derived from a Near Eastern population, which was classified as Felis silvestris lybica.  There was another wildcat that lives Western China that was sometimes recognized as Felis sivestris bieti or Felis bieti. The big taxonomy debate in this genus was where to include this Chinese mountain cat into the greater wildcat species or have it be a species of its own.

The new taxonomy changes quite a bit of this. Felis bieti is now recognized as species, but Felis silvestris now refers to only European and Caucasian wildcats.  Felis lybica is the new scientific name for the wildcats living Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and some parts of Central Asia, where it is sympatric with the Chinese mountain cat.  The fact that lybica and bieti exist in the same area without much gene flow is apparently the reason for elevating bieti to a species.  The reason for splitting up silvestris, though, had do with a deep mitochondrial DNA divergence between European and Caucasian wildcats and the rest of the wildcat species. Apparently, these two forms split from each other 173,000 years ago.

This revised taxonomy is really, well-supported with data, and I generally think it is right in its conclusions. However, I do think it made an error with this genus.

It retained Felis catus as a full species.  The same logic that says dogs are Canis lupus familiaris says that you cannot have a special domestic cat species either.

So the best way to classify domestic cats is as Felis lybica cata. You will probably only see this name written on this space, because unlike the literature on dogs, there is a noted deep adherence to Felis catus in the literature on domestic cats.

I honestly don’t know why there is such an adherence, because domestic cats are not that different from Felis lybica.  They come in more colors and coat types, but most domestic cats can live just as wildcats do. That’s why feral cats are an ecological hazard in so many places. They are quite effective predators, the ultimate mesopredator that found a niche living under the nose of man.

We don’t have as many good nuclear DNA studies on the various small cats as we do on various forms of the gray wolf complex, and this may be why there is a tendency to avoid a cladistic classification for the domestic form.

But if we’re doing this for dogs– and for good reason– we should be doing the same for cats. And the same for pigs and domestic mallards and domestic jungle fowl.

 

 

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I have a cat now

It happened. I got a kitten. His name is Pallas, named for the Prussian naturalist Peter Simon Pallas, who was the first Westerner to document the manul or Pallas’s cat.

He’s very chill and affectionate. He will meow piteously if I get up to use the bathroom, and he follows me everywhere that his little feet can take him.

I’ve never been a cat person, but he’s such a nice little kitten. He will probably turn into a wonderful cat.

And yes, he will be kept indoors only to protect both himself and native wildlife.

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The Tribe of Lybica

black cat

The August rains are autumn rains for me. The midday sun may boil the air a bit, but once a torrent falls from the sky,  air is astringent and cool and gives me just a little taste of the coming short days of October, when the sun will cast at the steepest angles through the crimson leaves on the trees.

Though the land is still in verdant summer, I feel this coming coolness and revel in it a bit. Just a few days ago, I was standing out in a bit of post-downpour reveling when I spied a black cat moving softly along the far end of the lawn.

Before we moved here, the cats lived in a paradise, feeding and fighting as ferals do,  and having their kittens on the old outbuildings that abut this property. The constant wanderings of dogs in and out of the house have put an bit of a damper on the cats constantly wandering here.

But every once in a while, I see one moving along the edge of the property, perhaps searching old haunts and checking to see if a giant coyote with a black muzzle still lived at this address.

On this day, though, the rain fell good and hard, and then the stooping August sun peared out to cast a yellow glow upon the land. And the sun rays cast upon the cat’s black coat, and its nearly pantherine form seemed to glow ethereally.

The cat glanced back at me, and I recognized its slender head and gracile form as belonging to a queen and not a tom.  Perhaps, it was the same queen I’d seen nearly month ago, moseying  through the summer grass with four kittens in tow.  Two black ones like their mother and two wildcat tabby ones cavorted all around their mother, who moved with the solemn determination of something wild and untouchable.

Their lives, like all things trying to be wild, are fleeting and harsh Hazards abound. Just few days later, I saw the flattened form of a black kitten on the highway just down from the house. I cannot know whether it was one of the four I’d seen cross the lawn, but I suspect that it was.

I am not a cat person. You will never confuse me with one, but I cannot help marvel at what they are. Many species of small wild cat exist in the world, but only a single form of wildcat managed set up shop in agrarian society.

This wildcat, now known by the name Felis lybica,  found that staking out granaries and wheatfields for mice and hamsters  was a pretty good way to survive. The grain ensured hordes of rodents for the stalking, and man’s hatred for all things large and predatory kept away all the wildcat adversaries or at least kept them at bay.

And over time the cat came to be man’s little wheatfield leopard, stalking and killing and living and traveling over the whole world as the ultimate mesopredator.

This is the Tribe of Lybica, the clan of little predators that don’t cause us much concern, and whole lineages of cats have passed before them. The mighty Smilodon and the American lion have fallen from the land. and even the squalling cougar has passed on from its haunts, though a few claim to see them slipping about in the undergrowth.

The Tribe of Lybica lives at the edge of human civilization, but it also lives in a much vaunted status as a companion animal. The internet worships them in almost the same garish way as the Ancient Egyptians did.  They filled their walls with many images of cats, while we fill our “walls” with memes of “kitters” and “cattos.”

The Anthropocene is the age where the little monsters thrive and the big ones live mostly in forgotten and inaccessible redoubts.  You’ve never seen an Amur tiger stroll down an alley in Pittsburgh, but you’ve surely caught the glance of one of the local ferals flitting away behind a parked car.

So the black cats will thrive well in my neighborhood. The speeding car is their only main concern.  They will stand starkly against the winter cold and driving rain, and we will consider them very little.

But they will thrive, and in the spring, the queens will have their kittens, and a whole new generation of the Lybica will inherit the grounds.

And this cycle will repeat long after I’ve moved on.

As much as I will rail that cats need to be kept indoors and kept neutered, they will thrive so long as human kind thrives.

And when our species goes the way of the dinosaur, their lineage will be spread across the globe. It might be cut down in size once the bigger predators return, or they could evolve into the new tigers and cougars that prowl the world post-humanity.

So the Tribe of Lybica’s fate is linked to ours, but perhaps not as much as we might assume.

Their connection to us will always be tenuous and fleeting but also linked and tied. A remarkable paradox, to be sure.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Last night, I came across a link about how conservationist were now using DNA tests to determine if certain tabby cats in Scotland were pure Scottish wildcat or not.

I thought it was pretty interesting, but I do have some issues with how this particular question is being framed.

My biggest problem is the assumption that Scottish wildcats are a distinct subspecies from the European wildcat.

If that’s the case, then they are doomed anyway.  There likely isn’t enough genetic variation within the endemic Scottish population for them to be maintained as a “pure” subspecies.

European wildcats (Felis silvestris silvestris) are found somewhat healthier numbers on the continent. They aren’t exactly thriving, but they aren’t almost extinct like the Scottish population. These wildcats, especially those in Eastern Europe, which still roam the forested terrain, could be used for genetic rescue.

The real problem, though, is that these cats are being swamped with lybica wildcat genes.

The lybica wildcat, which unfortunately has been given the vernacular name of “African wildcat,” even though it is also found in the Middle East, is the progenitor of the domestic cat.  Many sources list this cat as being a distinct species– usually as Felis catus or Felis domesticus-– but the current trend is to call it Felis silvestris catus.

I don’t think it has evolved that much from its wild ancestor, so I think it is much more appropriate to keep it as F.s. lybica. 

The lybica wildcat has proven to be quite successful at living in agricultural areas. These animals have spent thousands of years freely breeding around agricultural enterprises, and they are easily the most successful of all carnivorans living today.   Domestic cats are found everywhere, and because they have the ability to breed freely and rapidly without human assistance, their worldwide numbers must be much higher than those of domestic dogs.

The European subspecies is much more adapted to forested habitats, and as a result, they haven’t done very well since the rise of agrarian man.

These two animals are different subspecies that have adapted to two very different niches.

Raymond Coppinger’s main contention that dogs are a different species from the wolf is that wolves and dogs occupy different niches, but I’ve always thought that was a terrible argument. These two wildcats clearly have two different niches, but it is obvious that they aren’t distinct species at all.

And this, of course, causes a major issue.

Lybica wildcats are very well adapted to living in human influenced environments.

European wildcats are not.

And as a result lybica genes are swamping the European wildcat population.

This problem isn’t just happening in Scotland. It is happening all over the European wildcat’s range.

Which brings us to a very important question:  Can the European wildcat be saved as a “pure” subspecies?

I don’t think it can.

In order to preserve as pure, one would have to set aside vast tracts of forested land and then trap out every domestic cat that comes within ten miles of the preserves.

This is exactly the same procedure that the red wolf conservationists are using. Of course, the red wolf’s exact taxonomic status is very dodgy, but the so-called “pure” red wolves readily mate with Eastern coyotes that wander into their range. The only way to keep them “pure” is to spend lots of time and energy trapping coyotes that show up near red wolves.

Cats are much harder to control than coyotes, and there is also a much larger constituency of “cat protectors” who don’t want anyone doing anything to them.

So my guess is that it would be very hard to implement any program to control domestic cats in European wildcat range.

And then, while you’re keeping them “pure,” you’re going to have to think about genetic rescue at some point.

Are all the European wildcats the same subspecies?

If not, then some of these proposed subspecies are simply doomed.

The truth is all wild and freely breeding populations are constantly in flux. That’s the way it’s been with humans, and that’s the way it was with dogs until the closed registry system became institutionalized.

Virtually all black wolves living today are black because of a mutation that originated in domestic dogs. The mutation was introduced to wolves through crossbreeding. This melanistic trait is believed to have some selective advantage in boosting the immune system, which may be one reason that the historic wolf population of Florida consisted almost solely of black individuals. This trait never would have been passed on had two subspecies not exchanged genes at some point.

Maybe domestic cats can offer European wildcats some beneficial genes.  At the very least, they might offer them new MHC haplotypes, which would be very good for such an inbred population.

But if the goal is to keep European wildcats pure, it’s mostly a fool’s errand.

The lybica wildcat in its domestic form is just too successful.

 

 

 

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Of course, the coyotes don’t know if a cat is feral or owned.

All they know is cats are tasty and pretty easy to catch.

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When I asked about the identity of the species depicted above, I actually didn’t know what it was.

I initially thought it was an early depiction of the jungle cat (Felis chaus).

However, the image comes from James Bruce’s Travels to Discover the Souce of the Nile (1790).  The Scottish explorer James Bruce actually did discover the source of Blue Nile, which are the springs at Gish Abay in central Ethiopia.  Contrary to the title of his work, he was not the first European to discover the source of the Blue Nile. He was, however, the first British person to trace its source.

And that’s all that matters, right?

Bruce encountered this unusual cat while he was briefly governor of the province of Ras al-Fils, which is then a frontier province of Ethiopia. It is now in the Sudan.

He named this cat “the booted lynx,” which he derived from the black markings on the back of its legs. He describes the booted lynx as follows:

This is a very beautiful species of Lynx, and, as far as I know, the smallest of the kind. His body from the tip of the nose to she anus being only 22 inches. His back, neck, and forepart of his feet are of a dirty grey. His belly is of a dirty white, spotted with undefined marks, or stains of red. Below his eyes, and on each side of his nose, is a reddish brown, the back of his ears being of the same colour, but rather darker; the inside of his ears is very thickly clothed with fine white hair, and at the end is the pencil of hairs distinctive of this genus. On the back of his forefeet, he has a black streak or mark, which reaches from his heel two inches up his leg. On his hinder foot he has the same, which reaches four inches from the heel, and ends just below the first joint, and from this circumstance I have given him his name.

His tail is 13 inches long, the lower part of it, for 6 inches, is occupied with black rings. Between these rings his tail is nearly white, the rest much the same colour as his back. From his nose to his occiput is 4 inches and three quarters. From one eye to the other, measuring across his nose, is one inch and three quarters. From the base of one ear to that of the other, is 2 inches and 1/8. The aperture of the eye three quarters of an inch, and of a yellow iris. The length of his ear from its base to the point of the pencil of hairs at the top of it, 4 inches and three quarters. From the sole of his forefoot to his shoulder, as he stands, 13 inches and three quarters. From the sole of his hind foot, to the top of his rump, 15 inches and a quarter.

He has very much the appearance of a common cat, both from the length of his tail, and the shape of his head, which however is broader, and his neck thicker than that of a domestic animal. He is an inhabitant of Ras el Feel [Ras al-Fils], and, small as he is, lives among those tyrants of the forest, the elephant and rhinoceros. I do not mean that he has any hunting connections with them, as the jackal with the lion, I rather think he avails himself of what is left by the hunters of the carcases of those huge beasts. But the chief of all his food is the Guinea-hen, of which the thickets and bustles of this country are full. For these he lurks chiefly at the pools of water when they drink, and on this act of violence I surprised him. He is said to be exceedingly fierce, and to attack a man if any way pressed. At this time he mounts easily upon the highest trees ; at other times he is content with hiding himself in bushes, but in the season of the fly he takes to holes and caverns in the ground. I never saw its young ones, nor did I ever hear any noise it makes, for the shot killed him outright, but did not in the least disfigure him; so that the reader may depend upon this representation of him as I have given it, with all possible truth and precision (pg. 180-182).

Now, this animal’s sole lynx-like feature appears to be the “pencils” that stick up off the points of his ears. That’s very much a feature of the lynx genus– as well as that of the caracal.

However, it is too small to be a caracal, and caracals would never be marked in the fashion described in the text.

It can’t be a jungle cat either, for jungle cats are primarily an Asian species. Their range in Africa is restricted to Egypt’s Nile Valley.

So it probably was not a jungle cat, unless its range originally extended much deeper into the Sudan.

Further, the Egyptian subspecies of the jungle cat tends to be much tawnier than the booted lynx. Further, this cat would have been in the small end of that species, which can be over three feet in length (not counting the tail). The tail to body proportions for this cat are also quite different from the jungle cat, which has a relatively short-tail compared to other cats in the genus Felis.

It clearly wasn’t a lynx species, a caracal, or a jungle cat.

So what exactly was the booted lynx?

I think this is a good question, and I think that later zoologists were able to clarify its exact identity.

However, they weren’t able to do so without some severe conflation with the jungle cat. This conflation is understandable, if more than a touch confusing.

In his Monographies de Mammologie (1827), Dutch zoologist Coenraad Jacob Temminck would assign this species to the scientific name Felis caligata, the cat of the mist or darkness. Temminck claimed that this species was found throughout Africa and southern India.

Now, this description again conflates the booted lynx with the jungle cat.

Scottish merchant, physician, and naturalist William Jardine would use Temminck’s description to influence his entry on the booted lynx in his Naturalist Library,  I. Mammalia, Volume 2 (1834):

The Booted Lynx of Bruce has been confounded by many with the Felis chaus of Gueldenstad, figured upon our next Plate; but they are very different animals, and that of Bruce will stand under the designation applied to it by M. Temminck.

The Booted Lynx is sometimes 3 feet 3 inches in length, of which the tail will measure about 15 inches. The more general or average length is from two feet and a half to three feet. The fur of the adult male is of a bluish-grey tint, sometimes indistinctly clouded with transverse bands of blackish. The under parts are reddish. The ears are very long, tipped with a pencil of blackish hair; the backs are of a bright reddish brown, the inside white. On the heel, and stretching up the back of the leg, until nearly the first joint, is a large patch of deep black; whence its describers have taken its trivial name. This booted marking is common to many of the cats; but it runs much further up the limb of this animal than any of the others. The tail is black at the tip, where there are two or three alternate rings of black and white ; the portion next the body of the animal is of the same uniform tint with the upper parts. The female has a shade of a yellower colour over the whole body ; and in the young, the dark bands upon the sides are distinct and well defined.

This species seems to be very generally distributed over Africa, and, according to Temminck, is also found in Southern India. It feeds upon small animals and birds, and, in Africa, very much upon the wild Guinea-fowl; but it will also eat carrion, and the remains of animals which the larger beasts of prey have killed (pg. 254-255).

This description clearly mixes up the jungle cat with some other species.  Although Jardine is trying to set aside the jungle cat (“the chaus’) as being distinct from the booted lynx, he actually is through joining in with Temminck’s description of the cat’s range. Jungle cats are found in southern India, and cats of that subspecies are grayer than those of Egypt.

William Home Lizars produced the illustration that went along with Jardine’s entry.  Lizars, who is now known for his exotic interpretations of the descriptions of animals, merely interpreted the booted lynx as a lynx or bobcat with a longer tail.

This really doesn’t help us much, but keep in mind that the exact biogeography of the genus Felis was not clear at the time.

Georges Cuvier also thought that booted lynx was similar to– but distinct from– the jungle cat. C

F. chaus, Guld.; Schreb. CX. (The Chaus, or Lynx of the Marshes). Is of a yellowish grey-brown; the hind part of each leg blackish; tail reaches to the hamstrings, and is annulated at the extremity with black. Inhabits the Caucasian marshes, those of Persia and of Egypt, pursues birds, &c.

It is now thought we should separate from the above species the Booted Lynx—F. caligata, Temm., Bruce, pi. xxx, which is somewhat smaller, and has a little longer tail; the external surface of its ears is red. It is, at least, a closely allied species, and has the same habits (pg. 1o1).

All of these earlier accounts try to avoid conflating the booted lynx with the jungle cat, but they always mention how similar it is to that species.

This status for the booted lynx would carry on through the nineteenth century.

English naturalist John George Wood would describe the booted lynx in his Illustrated Natural History(1865):

The Booted Lynx derives its somewhat peculiar name from the deep black colouring with which its legs are partially stained. The side and the hinder portions of the legs are partially covered with black hair, which gives the animal, when seen from behind, a quaint aspect, as if it had been endued with a pair of short tight-fitting black buskins.

The fur of this animal is rather variable in its colouring, and it is found that the coat of the female is rather more yellow than that of the male. The tail is marked with several dark rings upon a whitish ground, the tip of the tail being black.

The general tint of the fur is a deep grey, sometimes varied by a reddish tawny hue, and sometimes plentifully besprinkled with black hairs. On the upper part of the legs there are some very faint stripes of a ruddy brown, and two similar bands may be observed on the sides of the face. When young, the fur is marked with dark stripes and blotches, which are found sparingly on almost every portion of the body, but are most conspicuous on the sides. It is spread over the two vast continents of Asia and Africa, being found in the southern parts of India and the greater part of Africa, from Egypt and Barbary to the Cape.

Its food consists of the smaller quadrupeds, and such birds as it can capture. It is by no means a large animal, being barely two feet in length exclusive of the tail, which measures rather more than a foot (pg 212-213).

This later description make sure that we understand that this animal is quite small, and although it makes no mention of ear tufts, the ghastly image accompanying the booted lynx description portrays it as having some bizarre ear tufts.

It isn’t until the twentieth century that the exact identity of the booted lynx starts to become clear.

Gos de Voogt would write about the booted cats of Nubia in his discussion of the domestic cat in Our Domestic Animals (1907):

The popular tale of Puss in Boots is known everywhere, but what is not so well known is that the skull of a “booted cat” is preserved in the osteological museum at Amsterdam. Evidently this cannot be a joke in so grave an institution; consequently it is worth while to search the works of natural history and find, if we can, a description of the species of cat called “booted.” In the great osteographical history of De Blainville (among others) we find mention of a group of “booted cats,” which have much in common with our domestic animal, as far as their skeleton is concerned. To this group belong the Nubian cats Felts maniculata and Felis caligata (from which probably came the skull preserved in the Amsterdam museum); also Felis Bubastis, the cat of ancient Egypt. The name of “booted cat” was first given to it, according to Cuvier, by Bruce, the Egyptian traveler, on account of its legs, which are black or white at the bottom like boots. Temminck, who baptized the species in his Monograph of Mammals with the name Felis caligata, gives identically the same description of it. In the zoological garden at Amsterdam there is now a living specimen of these original wild cats of Egypt; it has reddish-brown ears with little tufts at the points of them, and answers precisely to the descriptions and drawings given of it by Cuvier. In scientific works ” booted cat’ sometimes bears the name of “booted lynx” (pg. 90-91).

De Voogt was actually saying that the booted lynx was the ancestor of the domestic cat. Using the de Blainville’s analyses of skeletons as evidence, de Voogt is claims that the domestic cat is derived from the booted lynx, which is very similar to the cat of Egypt.

Just a few years earlier, Harold Schwann would contend that the booted lynx was not a unique species that belonged to the species Felis caligata, but it instead belonged to an African wildcat species that was then known as Felis ocreata.  His findings would appear in the Annals and Magazine of Natural History (1904):

The first account of this cat appears in Bruce’s ‘Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile’*, under the name of the “Booted Lynx,” and, with the exception of the exaggeration of the ear-tufts in the plate, appears to be a very accurate description.

In 1791 E. W. Cuhn published at Leipzig a German translation of the ‘Travels’  with a zoological appendix by J. F. Gmelin, where the latter distinctly gives the name of Felis ocreata to Bruce’s specimen.

F. ocreata therefore stands as being the earliest technical name of the species(pg. 421-422).

So the ear tufts weren’t real?

It seems to me very likely that Bruce did kill a cat in the Sudan, but for some reason, he wound up conflating the ears of this species with the jungle cats of Egypt’s Nile Valley.

So if the ear tufts are false and this cat is actually Felis ocreata, then this animal was in no way a lynx or any form of jungle cat.

Now, I’m sure your next question is what is Felis ocreata?

You can’t find it in modern taxonomies of the cat family. Google it. You won’t find it anywhere, except in old texts.

Felis ocreata was moved into Felis lybica, which Schwann says is some sort of caracal.  However, the Felis lybica that absorbed Felis ocreata— and the booted lynx– is same thing as as the wildcat of Egypt. The Harvard-trained zoologist Glover allen was referring to this cat as Felis lybica ocreata in his Checklist of African Mammals (1939).

If this taxonomy is correct, the booted lynx is a form of African wildcat. However, the various forms of wildcat are no longer regarded as distinct species. In North Africa, including the Sudan, the African wild cat subspecies is the native wildcat. It is now called Felis silvestris lybica.  This animal is confusingly called the African wildcat, but its range includes only the northern parts of Africa and extends into the Middle East to the Caspian Sea.

If you know your domestic animals, you know that this subspecies is the ancestor of the domestic cat. Contrary to long-held assumptions, the domestic cat originated from the lybica subspecies that was living in the Middle East, not Egypt. These cats were domesticated around 10,000 years ago.

If you read Bruce’s description, the booted lynx would regularly scavenge meat that had been killed by larger predators

This is exactly the same behavior that has been observed in the lybica wildcat.  The lybica wildcat’s ability to scavenge probably meant that it would have been attracted to the early villages of the Middle East.  It is likely that over time whole populations of these cats evolved to scavenge and hunt rodents near human settlements– which means that Coppinger’s flawed theory on dog domestication might actually work for cats.

Gros de Voogt was actually correct in suggesting that the domestic cat and the booted lynx were actually very close relatives. De Voogt just didn’t have the modern taxonomy of the genus Felis to realize that all of these proposed wildcat species were nothing more than regional forms of the African wildcat subspecies.

So the booted lynx was nothing more than a lybica wildcat. Its tufted ears and relationship to the Lynx genus was simply an error or misrepresentation by Bruce.

A depiction of the booted Lynx, Felis caligata, that actually resembles the lybica wildcat.

But from that one inaccuracy, the most bizarre species of cat was created. For over a hundred years, writers were discussing a small lynx that lived in Africa that was something like the jungle cat of Asia.

Had Bruce’s account not included the image of the booted lynx with such exaggerated ear tufts, I don’t think for a minute that these naturalists would have been in error for so long. Lybica wildcats are quite common near human settlements, and they were very well-documented by science.

Lybica wildcat with boot markings. This is the real identity of the booted lynx.

The only trait that Bruce’s booted lynx has that is not met with the lybica wildcat is the tendency for these cats to prey upon guinea fowl. I have never heard of domestic cat killing one, but it may have been that Bruce conflated this cat with the jungle cats that he knew  from his time in Egypt. If he could see tufted ears on an African wildcat, he might also project the jungle cat’s predatory behavior onto this particular form of wildcat.

Those of us living in the modern era are a bit spoiled by mass communication, effective cameras, and sophisticated genetic analyses. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,  information about natural history was much harder to obtain.  When the artist who produced the image in Bruce’s text decided to give his lybica specimen really exaggerated ear tufts to fit with Bruce’s contention that it was a small lynx, the whole scientific establishment was fooled for over a century.

These sorts of errors would be less likely to make now, but there is still much we don’t know. Keep in mind that much of the scientific establishment still regards the red wolf as a valid species, even though the most sophisticated genetic analyses seem to point to it being coyote with some wolf ancestry. It has only recently been confirmed that the kouprey is a distinct species and not a hybrid with the zebu and the banteng.

These issues should tell us to be careful using historical texts to determine the exact identity and range of different species. Sometimes,  they are helpful. Sometimes, they are not.

Especially when the description includes an image that leads everyone astray.

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I hope the build-up to me revealing the identity of the booted lynx wasn’t like when Geraldo Rivera revealed the contents of Al Capone’s vault on live television.

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Doug must have been at zoo or nature sanctuary, because he sent me this photo of a European wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris).

The wildcat is the ancestor of the domestic cat.

However, the domestic cat is derived from a different subspecies than this one found in Romania.

That subspecies is the African wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica). The domestication event for the cat did not occur in Egypt as was previously thought. It turns out that cats were domesticated about 10,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, which is about the same time that the Agricultural Revolution took off in that same region.

How can an African wildcat be domesticated in Mesopotamia?

Very simple.

Our common names for the subspecies of wildcat do not correspond with geography very well. The subspecies we call the African wildcat is actually quite widespread in the Middle East and Western Asia.

There is also a Southern and East African subspecies that is different from lybica.

That makes things very confusing.

Because cats don’t disperse over vast ranges in the way wolves do, these subspecies are more genetically distinct than wolves subspecies. Cats are territorial and smaller, and those animals tend to have stronger genetic distinctions as one encounters them across their native range.

However one thing is does mess with the genetics of wildcats.

Wildcats will regularly interbreed with domestic cats.

In Europe, virtually all populations have some problems with hybridization. That is one reason why the European subspecies is in so much trouble.

The population in Eastern Europe is believed to be the healthiest and has experienced the least amount of hybridization.

But wildcats are very hard to see in the wild– especially during the day.

So I know this is a captive animal.

As was the bear.

***

When Doug sent me this photo, I got really excited.

From my inbox, it looked like a lynx.

But when I downloaded it and saw it was a cat, I scratched my head.

He actually had to tell me what it was!

I knew about European wildcats, and I knew they lived in Eastern Europe.

But for some reason, I just wasn’t expecting that animal.

I was thinking lynx.

I guess that’s what happens when you send me a photo of on of Ceausescu’s European brown bears.

I start thinking of big predators.

But this one is amazing enough in its own right.

A true rarity.

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