Tetrapod Zoology

i-e8f82f72ffe118c903053b2141edff64-BCiB Bovington corpse.jpg

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth saying again: we live in exciting times. When new Cretaceous theropod dinosaurs and bizarre fossil lizards come out of the woodwork thick and fast; when highly obscure, recently discovered birds are relocated or reported for just the second or third time; and when new technology and forms of analysis allow us to realise – for the first time – that ordinary animals do the most extraordinary things. I’m referring there to a whole slew of recent discoveries that I’d blog about if I had time. I don’t. And I’m here, as you know full well, to write about cats. British cats. Of multiple species. Finally, here are my various thoughts on the Big Cats in Britain conference that I just attended in Hull, East Yorkshire (website here). Since returning I have thought of little other than cats, cats, cats, and here’s why…

I’m not, I regret, going to provide a review of the entire conference; rather, I’m going to discuss some of the key points and areas that interested me in particular. I’ll begin with the usual disclaimer-type stuff. Because I’ve spent some considerable time learning about the evidence, I am firmly of the following opinion: the evidence indicating that large felids are present within the British countryside is scientifically compelling, and we can now accept without doubt that several non-native species are present in the country. For convenience, these animals are termed ABCs (Alien Big Cats), though this term is problematical as, not only are some of the species involved actually small cats, it now seems that some of them are not aliens. Shock horror. ABCs include several non-native species, such as Jungle cat Felis chaus, Leopard Panthera pardus and Puma Puma concolor, some old natives that seem to have returned, such as Northern lynx Lynx lynx, as well as various others that are rather more mysterious. If you find the concept of ABCs objectionable and/or surprising then you are either unaware of the relevant data, or have decided to be an unscientific ‘rejectionist’. For previous discussions of mine on the subject of how good the evidence for British ABCs is, please see British big cats: how good, or bad, is the evidence? and The Cupar roe deer carcass.

i-04ec0d6ac9a94ae37bf6204cb10e1258-BCiB sign.jpg

My journey up to Hull – I was accompanied by Jonathan McGowan and David Mitchell – was eventful. We saw Red kite Milvus milvus, Chinese water deer Hydropotes inermis, dead muntjacs, and a ton of other stuff. The M1 wasn’t working, so our trip took about four hours longer than it should. And we stopped to help at a crashed car that had just smashed though a barrier and into the woods, adding further to the delay. But no dead ABCs on the roads [on the subject of corpses: don't read too much into the photo at the top of the article as no one is sure what it is. Photo taken by Jon McGowan].

The conference itself, kicking off on the Friday night, involved not only a great many talks about the British felid fauna, but also several round-table discussions, several screenings of video footage, and much examination of relevant specimens. On the discussions, one subject that particularly holds my interest is that of rewilding: there are a great many rewilding efforts now underway in Britain, and the existence in our fauna of large felid species – some alien and some ‘old natives’ – has not been missed. In fact a special issue of the conservation journal Ecos (website here), devoted to rewilding, was available free at the conference. A quick look through reveals that three of the contributions consider the role of ABCs (Jeeves 2006, Sidaway 2006, Taylor 2006), and such animals do seem to be taken seriously by those working in this area. The general feeling at the conference was that there is enough ‘space’ in the British ecosystem to accommodate ABCs, given our current unnatural lack of large predators and the enormous surplus of suitable prey we now have (including non-native rabbits and sika deer).

The video footage shown at the meeting was awesome, and I was finally able to see several sequences that I’d only heard about until now. Believe it or don’t, a large ABC (apparently a leopard) was captured accidentally on film during the filming of the movie Calendar Girls and even made it into the final cut of the film. I’ve seen the film twice and have missed the animal on both occasions, but it’s there if you look hard enough. Also particularly memorable is a piece of footage taken from a hot air balloon. A big black cat, of unidentified species, is clearly visible running for its life: it was presumably terrified by the balloon. It races across fields, through a gap, and along hedgerows at incredible speed. Unfortunately exactly when and where the footage was taken remains unknown. We now know that some cats are being brought into the country for use in canned hunts, and we watched the video where two lynxes – discovered locked in a garage – were captured and confiscated. We also watched some of the Australian footage, including the sequence of the Lithgow mega-cat.

i-e9cf90b6a1f18f41c2074540750356c4-Naish & Kellas cat-2.jpg

For me, among the most rewarding experiences I ever have are those when I finally get to ‘meet’ a specimen, or a member of a particular species, that I have only previously encountered in the literature. Anyone who knows anything about British mystery felids will have heard of Kellas cats: the black, wildcat-sized felids named for Kellas in West Moray, Scotland; the place where the first specimen was shot in 1983. Kellas cats were brought to recognition by mystery cat researcher Di Francis, and she not only wrote about them, but eventually kept and bred them (Francis 1993). Kellas cats are generally thought to be introgressive hybrids between Scottish wildcats Felis silvestris and feral domestic cats F. catus (Shuker 1989, 1990, Kitchener 1993), though at least some of them are true melanistic wildcats. Di contends that black wildcats have always existed but, because naturalists only thought of the striped wildcats as ‘true’ wildcats, the black individuals that were shot or snared were conventionally discarded [thanks to Mark North for the photo].

As you can see from the accompanying image, we had a real live – well, stuffed – Kellas cat at the conference. And we also had the real, live Di Francis too. It was great to finally meet her. I’ll talk a lot more about her and her ideas in the next post (sorry, I had to split it: I had a lot to write about). She is not content with bringing one new British felid to attention, but also has a second, and it’s this animal which, for me, was the most amazing revelation of the conference. Actually, she has a third too, but I can’t talk about that yet.

One criticism sometimes levelled at the subject of British ABCs is that the right kinds of field sign are missing. In other words, where are all the tracks, droppings and predated carcasses that should be there if these animals are real? As I’ve stated before, such arguments are very naive and come from people who clearly have no knowledge of the sort of evidence that now exists. This subject formed the focus of Jonathan McGowan’s talk and accompanying poster display. Jon is assistant curator of the Bournemouth Natural Sciences Society and an extremely competent, highly experienced field naturalist (he is, incidentally, involved in the discovery of the Boscombe cliffs green lizard colony).

i-472e5d384650f1dc8ca5a1bdd7072c92-Di & Kellas.jpg

Working in Dorset and parts of Hampshire, Jon has photographed, documented and collected a vast amount of field evidence produced by ABCs. We’re talking deer carcasses wedged in trees, numerous large felid tracks, Sika deer skulls bearing circular entry holes matching the exact diameters of leopard canines (and with no exit holes such as would be caused by bullets), and undoubted big cat scat. If anyone can think of a British animal that produces droppings 15-24 cm long that not only smell and look exactly like cat droppings, but also contain swan and goose feathers, and the fur of fox, deer and badger.. well, I’d like to hear from you. Together with David Mitchell, Jon is currently getting various alleged ABC hairs DNA-analysed. A few previous British ABC hair samples have been checked, and in at least one case have come back with results showing that a non-native felid (in the case concerned, a member of the genus Panthera) was indeed involved [adjacent photo, from the Scottish big cats site, shows Di Francis with the famous Tomas Christie Kellas cat specimen].

Many of these pieces of evidence have been discovered by simply looking around in the places where the cats have been reported by eyewitnesses. While there are now a great many researchers who are collecting and collating eyewitness accounts, all too few people are looking in the right places for the right kind of field sign. The take home message is that field sign for British ABCs is – contrary to some statements – abundant, well documented, and not particularly difficult to find if you know where to look and what to look for. This data is known to everyone in the ABC research community, but is mostly unpublished and hence poorly acknowledged by interested people outside of the community.

i-528fe5e8b41ca53495ec9504562b9d32-BCiB toys.jpg

More to come in the next post, which I aim to publish within the next 24 hours. I’ll finish by mentioning the fact that I dislocated my right shoulder – again – on Sunday morning. This time I managed to do it while sitting at breakfast. I was imitating a chimpanzee spearing a bushbaby at the time, my wails of pain assumed by those around me to be my attempts at replicating the calls of a speared strepsirrhine.

Refs – -

Francis, D. 1993. My Highland Kellas Cats. Jonathan Cape, London.

Jeeves, M. 2006. Rewilding Middle England. Ecos 27, 8-16.

Kitchener, A. 1993. Investigating the identity of the Kellas cat. In Francis, D. 1993. My Highland Kellas Cats. Jonathan Cape, London, pp. 211-213.

Shuker, K. P. N. 1989. Mystery Cats of the World. Robert Hale, London.

- . 1990. The Kellas cat: reviewing an enigma. Cryptozoology 9, 26-40.

Sidaway, R. 2006. Alladale’s fenced wilderness – making a breakthrough? Ecos 27, 30-35.

Taylor, P. 2006. Home counties wildland – the new nature at Knepp. Ecos 27, 44-51.

Comments

  1. #1 Neil
    March 28, 2007

    “The take home message is that field sign for British ABCs is – contrary to some statements – abundant, well documented, and not particularly difficult to find if you know where to look and what to look for.”

    I remember visiting a zoo/wildlife park in Devon, near Dartmoor. when I was (much) younger and there next to the big cat enclosures was a notice board talking about ABCs as a fact, stating that some big cats had escaped from a nearby zoo and never been found. I remember being surprised having previously read of the cats as being Myths. I always kept an eye out for big cat footprints from then on! And next time I’m on Dartmoor I’ll look for 24cm cat poo!

  2. #2 Raymond
    March 28, 2007

    -On Di Francis

    “She is not content with bringing one new British felid to attention, but also has a second, and it’s this animal which, for me, was the most amazing revelation of the conference. Actually, she has a third too, but I can’t talk about that yet.”

    (Squirms with excitement)

    I won’t blow it for ye Darren.But I know _exactly_ what you’re referring to, have known for years.I take it you and Dr. Kitchener et al. had more than ample opportunity to examine the specimens! 8-D

    (eagerly awaiting the next post!)

  3. #3 Lawrence Nyveen
    March 28, 2007

    In which scene of “Calendar Girls” does the ABC appear?

  4. #4 Darren Naish
    March 28, 2007

    Raymond: I’d love to know how you know what you know, we’ll discuss it later :) Is it because of what’s already in the literature or do you have some sort of first-hand involvement?

    Lawrence: I only know that the relevant scene is a shot of the countryside, with trees in the distance and a wall in the middle distance. The cat climbs up and over the wall. A still from the scene was available on the www but I can’t find it now. Can anyone help?

  5. #5 Raymond
    March 29, 2007

    “Is it because of what’s already in the literature or do you have some sort of first-hand involvement?”

    Just in the on-line and paper lit, going back ten years.
    I’ve always known that this was a subject that badly
    needed mainstream review.I’m just _very,very_ excited and glad it’s finally being analyzed!

    The “rewilding” concept is an interesting subplot to all this.There’s a push for a similiar concept for the North
    American plains and southwestern areas.

    “some old natives that seem to have returned, such as Northern lynx *Lynx lynx*”

    In a way, couldn’t the leopard, *Panthera pardus* also
    be regarded as an old British(albeit Pleistocene)native?

  6. #6 Sarda Sahney
    March 29, 2007

    I know I am a geek, but I am going to go rent Calender Girls this weekend. Thanks for the informative post! Hope your shoulder is better. Sarda

  7. #7 Darren Naish
    March 29, 2007

    Raymond: you’re right, in that leopard were here in the distant past. However, their period of absence is so long that there’s no realistic possibility of them having hung on, undiscovered, until modern times. While the species, then, could be considered an ‘old native’, the alien populations we have cannot. Lynxes on the other hand were (1) definitely still here until just 1000 years ago and (2) are mentioned in some historical sources (e.g. Cobbett’s sighting from the 1700s). The remote possibility remains that they hung on for the duration, in which case our populations might be true old natives. I’m not saying that’s what I think… pretty hard to accept that mammals of this size have survived without being better recorded … but it’s a view that’s been promoted by some.

    Thanks Sarda – and let us know if you find that cat! I’ll ask Mark Fraser, the conference organizer, as he knows exactly where in the film the scene can be found (and I think he was responsible for posting the screen-capture on the web). If you have any screen-capture software you know what to do!

  8. #8 Dr Vector
    March 29, 2007

    Working in Dorset and parts of Hampshire, Jon has photographed, documented and collected a vast amount of field evidence produced by ABCs. We’re talking deer carcasses wedged in trees, numerous large felid tracks, Sika deer skulls bearing circular entry holes matching the exact diameters of leopard canines (and with no exit holes such as would be caused by bullets), and undoubted big cat scat.

    How much of this and the other ABC evidence is published? I am always jealous of the field biologists I know. They do an autopsy on a dead duck and find 200 ants in its crop, or find a bullfrog with porcupine quills sticking out of its face, and wham there’s a little 2-page paper for the regional natural history journal. So if I was in the UK and I found a big cat scat, I’d take scaled photographs, measure it, weigh it, dissect it, etc. and then I’d publish the results. So I’m sadly ignorant but genuinely curious: are the people who are finding the evidence not trying to publish it, or trying to get it into peer-reviewed journals and failing, or getting it into journals only to have it ignored by the ‘mainstream’ community? And if there are journal publications, would you consider posting a list of references? I know about the wildcat papers and about the various books on ABCs. I’m curious about papers in peer-reviewed journals that document the ABC evidence.

    A separate request: which of the books on ABCs are worth reading, and are there one or two that you would recommend to start with?

  9. #9 Shaun Stevens
    March 29, 2007

    Darren, I wouldn’t get too excited by the calender girls shot, as Mark Fraser has investigated the site. The measurements he took, indicates the cat, was no larger than a domestic.

  10. #10 Darren Naish
    March 29, 2007

    Darren, I wouldn’t get too excited by the calender girls shot, as Mark Fraser has investigated the site. The measurements he took, indicates the cat, was no larger than a domestic.

    D’oh!! Mark – please confirm (thanks Shaun). Then who told me it was a leopard? Does anyone have stills of the piece of footage – filmed from way above the cat – verified by Chris Moiser? This was also shown at the conference.

  11. #11 Thebrummell
    March 29, 2007

    As a Canadian who spent a few years of my childhood living in Urban Britain, and the last ten years living in coastal British Columbia, all of this excitement in the UK about ABCs seems rather baffling. I know lots of people who claim to have either seen, been hunted by, or watched (with either horror or amusement) a big cat, variously named “puma”, “cougar” or “mountain lion” (Puma concolor, by recent discussion) eat a small dog with an unfortunate name (SDWAUN).

    I know that there are lots of obvious reasons to expect big cats in western North America but not in Scotland, but I’m still confused because of the definition: do ABCs in the UK have to be members of breeding populations, or does an escapee from a zoo or similar count? If the latter counts, why the fuss? I’d assume a non-zero escape rate for large mammals from zoos and wildlife parks (and those despicable canned hunts) as a background phenomenon.

  12. #12 David Marjanovi?
    March 29, 2007

    I know that there are lots of obvious reasons to expect big cats in western North America but not in Scotland, but I’m still confused because of the definition: do ABCs in the UK have to be members of breeding populations, or does an escapee from a zoo or similar count? If the latter counts, why the fuss? I’d assume a non-zero escape rate for large mammals from zoos and wildlife parks (and those despicable canned hunts) as a background phenomenon.

    Then why is the phenomenon, as far as I’m aware, completely limited to Great Britain within Europe?

    It can’t be that the British are generally crazier. They don’t have more than their fair share of UFO sightings, AFAIK.

  13. #13 Mark Lees
    March 30, 2007

    I don’t think it is only the UK. A few years ago I was chatting about ABCs with a few persons with whom I was working at the time. One of them stated that he’d seen a huge black cat (as big as an Alsation dog) while on holiday in rural Portugal – but he had only found out when he got back home to the UK that ‘panthers’ aren’t native to Portugal.

  14. #14 David Marjanovi?
    March 30, 2007

    I’m not aware of any other case… kangaroos, yes, but not big cats. (Other than the expected lynxes, and those are extremely rare and restricted to small areas.)

  15. #15 windy
    March 30, 2007

    A bunch of people saw a lion in southheastern Finland in 1992 :)

  16. #16 Tina Rhea
    April 2, 2007

    “I thought I saw a mountain lion, but it turned out to be a golden retriever.” And that was from a park ranger in southern Illinois. In soliciting sightings of bobcats, I grew very skeptical of what people thought they had seen, especially a flash crossing the road, often at night. If anything’s out there, there ought to be evidence, as I found with bobcats (road-killed cats, half-eaten rabbit carcasses covered with leaves and dirt, reliable tracks with photos, etc.).

  17. #17 Darren Naish
    April 2, 2007

    Thanks for your message Tina. Your wording implies that you didn’t read the article: one of the main reasons for my promotion of the idea that British ABCs are real is that the sort of evidence you allude to does indeed exist. It, unfortunately, hasn’t been widely reported: and for thoughts on why this is please see comments attached to the other ABC posts.

    Ok everyone.. to the list of ‘things to do’ I am adding ‘produce peer-reviewed paper on ABC field sign with Jon McGowan et al.’. We’ll submit to J. Mammalogy or J. Zoology.

  18. #18 Mark
    May 31, 2007

    Yup, the Calendar Girls film show’s nothing more than a domestic cat on a back garden wall.

  19. #19 Darren Naish
    May 31, 2007

    Bugger :)

  20. #20 Julian Constantine
    March 3, 2010

    interesting the diversity of reports. I have myself seen a large cat,in Cornwall,some few years ago. This appeared to be a Tabby-marked male pretty much identical to a Scottish Wildcat.This animal was about twice the size of the biggest domestic cat I have ever seen.Even Big-boy,bred by Leslie Green (Von Mondahl)was dwarfed by this chap. I stood no more than 10 feet from him and we both froze for a while looking at each other before he retreated into the hedgerow. I have also seen Green Lizards in Cornwall and I am aware of populations of salamanders at Porkellis,which I would imagine are metamorphosed axolotls,these being popular pets in my youth.You may well be aware of the reintroduction of L.Agilis in Constantine,but do you know there is an existing relict (c.1980) population of these lizards less than 7 miles away that is currently under investigation. Julian Constantine