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chinese mountain cat night

We lump. We split. We recombine. We split again.

Taxonomic disputes. Cladistics. Phylogenetic trees. We quibble. We quarrel.

I particularly love these disputes. They are what happens in this era of the Neo-Darwinian synthesis and the rise of cladistic classification models.

Ever since it was known to modern science, the tufted-eared wildcat of mountains of Qinghai and Sichuan were thought be a unique species, an endemic mountain cat of China.

It was called Felis bieti after the missionary naturalist Felix Biet who was stationed in Tibet. Pronounced the proper French way, Felis bieti sounds a lot like Felix Biet, though he was not the person who named it. Alphonse Milne-Edwards, the scholarly French mammalogist, named the beast.

And all was fine taxonomy-wise.

Then, as the Chinese population grew, they began to put lots and lots of pressure on the mountains. They poisoned the pikas and rodents, and the cat’s numbers have started to drop.

It might be easy to get people interested in preserving the cat.

Even more so, because its classical taxonomy has been called into question.  A 2007 genetic study that sought to find the origins of the domestic cat found that the Felis bieti was actually so close to the wildcat that it ought to be regarded as a subspecies. This was a limited mtDNA study, which has its potential problems.

It could be that there is indeed a unique Felis bieti but that it has hybridized so much with wildcats or their domestic kin that they have a wildcat-like mtDNA sequence. So we’re going to need some nuclear DNA studies to confirm whether this is a subspecies or not.

If it turns out to be wildcat subspecies, then it might actually be easier to rally support for conserving it. People love cats so much that it often gets very hard to have discussions about them as invasive species, so when we have a potential close cousin of Fluffy or Morris that might go extinct, it might be easier to get people interested in preserving them.

These cats are found not far from the where the last wild giant pandas roam. The Chinese mountain cat, as it is known in English, isn’t quite as rare as the panda.

Taxonomic quibbles and quarrels do have political consequences.  Some of them are good. Some are them are negative.

We use the information the best information we have, but we always manipulate symbols in order to rally support for our causes.

The tufted wildcat of China might be one of those species we might easily manipulate.  The Scottish wildcat has been called “the Highland tiger, ” and even though it’s unlikely that any pure Scottish wildcats still exist, it has captured the imagination of the British conservation-minded community.

Perhaps something could be done here as well.  People love that which is nearest to their own understanding, and domestic cats losing their closest wild kin is something that would bother many.

This is what has helped wolves in their public relations and led to their ultimate success as a conservation story.

A little wildcat could have a lot of appeal, and maybe it can be saved, bieti or silvestris or whatever it is.

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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.

***

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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