Monday, May 09, 2016

Curious About Cats


Cats are mysterious. All peoples, including the Egyptians who sometimes worshipped them as gods (something cats take as their due), seem to think so. My house has three – the old queen, Flutz, the grouchy black and white Hodgins, and the young gray Siamese cross known as Asher the Destroyer, whose cuteness and ability to lay waste to paper towel rolls and the like has garnered him a following on FaceBook.  Despite 30 years of living with cats, I don’t really understand them: the way the dominance hierarchy among cats seems to be in constant flux is most curious. It also interests me to observe that Asher is the only one of the three who takes much interest in where humans are or what they are doing: the others happen upon us mainly by chance. 
 The wild cats have their mysteries, too, and we’re still learning about them.  A friend and colleague of mine, Dr. Valerie Beason, had the honor of the most recent discovery of a new species of large  wild cat (2006), when her genetic analysis showed the clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) was not one species but two: the animals on Borneo and Sumatra were darker, smaller-spotted, and longer-fanged than those on the mainland, and DNA proved there had been a long separation between the two. Accordingly, she and her colleagues established the new species Neofelis diardi. (Dr. Ron Pine, formerly of the Smithsonian, has pointed out to me that N. diardi was not an entirely new species: indeed, it was named by Cuvier in 1823, but the name fell into disuse as only one species of Neofelis was recognized.  I think the restoration using a new line of evidence and new technology still counts as a major discovery: the beaked whale Mesoplodon traversii was a similar case.)
Some cat mysteries, of course, have been solved. I helped missionary/cryptozoologist Peter Hocking get two unusual cat skulls from Peru examined (that effort was not definitive, but one led by Dr. Darren Naish was).  These turned out to be fairly normal jaguars.  Hocking thought one was a jaguar in a previously unknown speckled color pattern, and it could still be so: there is 19th-century illustration of such a beast, although the background looks more tawny than the grayish coat witnesses described to Hocking Tales of a large tiger-striped cat, though, appear to be just tales (or tails? You know I’d make that pun in here somewhere.).) The Mexican mystery cat, the onza, proved to be a puma with a few minor oddities.
Thinking more about cats… we don’t know if there are any Eastern panther survivors (as opposed to wandering visitors and released pets), although I rather think there are a few. We don’t know if such a thing as a black cougar (aka “black panther” exists): there’s no hard evidence, although there are an awful lot of reports.  I’ve mentioned before that my dad is still sure about the one that crossed in front of his car 60 years ago on a forest road in Maine, and Florida cryptozoologist Rob Robinson and his wife recently watched one at very close range. In Florida, it’s conceivable a black big cat could be a leopard, or its descendants: I remember in the 1970s, when I was growing up there, you could still see such cats in numerous (and awful) roadside zoos in the state. There is not proof that enough of these were turned loose to establish a viable wild population, but I don't think it would surprise anyone. Black bobcats are also known from Florida and offer another possible source of mistaken identity, if one assumes the animal is at a sufficient distance, or in sufficient foliage, to hide the lack of a tail.
Another thing about cats: did we miss a North American species? Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America all have small, long-tailed wild cats.  None exist north of Texas (where the jaguarundi id sometimes found), although we do have the bobcat and lynx. There’s no reason North America had to have a long-tailed type, but it just might have had one anyway. Newspaper clippings and letters from the 19th century, gathered by cryptozoologist Chad Arment, leave a bit of a mystery. Hunters in  Pennsylvania reported a true wild cat very unlike domestic cats.  Chad built on the work of folklorist Henry Shoemaker, who had collected numerous accounts of a (fairly) consistently described cat being killed, trapped, or exhibited.  The animal in question was reportedly larger than a domestic cat and had a gray or brown body, turning to buff or whitish on the underside, with a variety of black markings which were sometimes strong enough to give the cat a tiger-striped appearance.  It had prominent, sometimes tufted, ears, a relatively flat face, and a long tail ringed in black.  The cat was always described as rare, and there have been no such reports in decades, but ….?




Bill Rebsamen's awesome illustration of van Roosmalen's jaguar. (Copyright Bill R, 2006)

Dr. Marc G. M. van Roosmalen, namer of many new mammal species (even if not all have been accepted), is dead certain there’s a black jaguar morph with a white throat and a tuft on its tail like a lion’s.  It’s not just an offshoot of the known melanistic jaguars: those have rosettes visible if you look at the coat from the right angle, while this animal is solid black. It reportedly runs to the large end of the jaguar size range and hunts in pairs.  There have been occasional reports of such a “black tiger” from Brazil going back to the 1700s, when naturalist Thomas Pennant illustrated it as described today.  It makes me think of the “king” cheetah, a recurring genetic abnormality that is different not only in coat pattern but in the structure of its hairs from normal cheetahs, and was once thought a separate species.  Bill Rebsamen did an illustration of the black jaguar cat for my book Shadows of Existence, and Roosmalen pronounced it precisely accurate.

This is far from a complete list.  There are other claims for unusually colored cats or entire new species, ranging from saber-toothed cats to (really) a green lion.  Karl Shuker’s book Mystery Cats of the World and its 2012 sequel (see below) collects most of these, but the cats, I think, will need another entry in this blog soon.

THANKS TO Dr. Ron Pine for a long post on FaceBook which amplified and corrected several points here. 


Further Reading
Alderton, David.  1993.  Wild Cats of the World.  New York: Facts on File.
Arment, Chad.  2004. Cryptozoology: Science and Speculation.  Landisville, PA: Coachwhip.     
Bolgiano, Chris. 1995.  Mountain Lion.  Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books.
Buckley-Beason, Valerie A., et. al., 2006. “Molecular Evidence for Species-Level Distinctions in Clouded Leopards,” Current Biology 16, 2371–2376, December 5.
Naish, Darren, et. al., 2014. “‘Mystery big cats’ in the Peruvian Amazon: morphometrics solve a cryptozoological mystery,” PeerJ 2:e291 https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.291
Shuker, Karl. 2012. Cats of Magic, Mythology and Mystery. cfz press.
Shuker, Karl.  2003.  The Beasts That Hide From Man.  New York: Paraview.
Shuker, Karl P.N.  1989.  Mystery Cats of the World.  London: Robert Hale.
Van Roosmalen, Marc.  2003.  Descriptions on Web site, “New Species from Amazonia,” http://www.amazonnewspecies.com/index.htm.
Van Roosmalen, Marc. 2013. Barefoot through the Amazon - On the Path of Evolution: Amazon Digital Services.

(I also should thank Shuker, van Roosmalen, Beason, Naish, Arment, and Loren Coleman for personal correspondence from 2000-2015 over some of these topics.) 

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