In the previous post I discussed some of the interesting goings-on that happened at the 1st Annual Big Cats in Britain Conference, held at Hull between the 23rd and 25th March. If you found any of the stuff I covered interesting, then you’ll be pleased and (hopefully) intrigued to know that I didn’t even get round to writing about the stuff I found really interesting. As promised, there are some revelations which – if valid – are just jaw-slackeningly amazing…
In the previous post I wrote briefly about Kellas cats, a population of melanistic felids first discovered in 1984 and now known from several specimens, some dead, some alive (one of which is pictured below). Kellas cats – generally regarded as introgressive wildcat x domestic cat hybrids – are not much bigger than either wildcats or domestic cats, and are nothing to do with the much larger species that also inhabit the British countryside (lynxes, leopards and pumas), despite the efforts of journalists and TV people to claim that they are. The first Kellas cat specimen to be obtained was shot dead near Kellas, West Moray, in 1983 and appeared in the national press in the October of 1984. Another black felid specimen, dubbed the Revack cat, had appeared in the press in June 1984 and is usually regarded as the first Kellas cat specimen to be brought to attention. Di Francis – the mystery cat researcher I introduced in the previous post – investigated these specimens. The Revack cat then disappeared, being known only from photos for years, until Di tracked down the taxidermist it had been given to. Luckily he still owned the skin, though it lacks a tail. The Kellas specimen, shot by Tomas Christie, did not go missing and is, today, a relatively famous taxiderm mount widely figured in the literature (Shuker 1989, 1990, Francis 1993a, b). Remember all this, as we’ll be returning to in the next post.
As anyone who has read Di’s books or articles will know, it is ironic that her involvement with these small black felids resulted from her search for the larger mystery felid that she thinks inhabits the British Isles. As explained in her 1983 book Cat County, Di has concluded that Britain is home to a large felid of a new species. It is purportedly diverse in coloration, with females being brownish or greyish, juveniles being striped, and males being black and, while superficially puma-like, it has a unique manual morphology, large, subtriangular ears and a distinctive pug-like squashed rhinarium (Francis 1983). Myself and colleagues have taken to calling this semi-hypothetical felid the Mastiff cat (in part for reasons that I can’t yet discuss).
If this idea is new to you then you may well consider it ridiculous. I personally cannot take seriously the idea that Britain might harbour an undiscovered species of large mammal, and indeed Di’s hypothesis has not gone down well among other mystery cat researchers. Not only is there no evidence for a new large British felid in the fossil record, it’s been mostly concluded that the diverse morphology she described for mastiff cats reflects the fact that the creature is a composite, based on sightings of species as diverse as feral domestic cats, jungle cats, lynxes, pumas and leopards. A mastiff cat ‘cub’ photographed in Wales looks almost identical to a big tabby, like the late Toby in the photo below [from my flickr site]. Di points to several good eyewitness reports – made at close range, sometimes by experienced observers – that describe a cat in great detail, the problem being that that cat does not match with any known species. I admit that this is indeed a problem, especially given that the reports in question are consistent.
I will end there on this subject, though I’ll say that this is not the end of the story. Most photos depicting the corpses of large British felids clearly show known species, including jungle cats, leopard cats and lynxes. However, as revealed at the conference there are some corpse photos that don’t match any known species. I cannot say any more and will stop there. As I’ve said, I personally find it just about impossible to think that Britain – or, indeed, the whole of Europe – might harbour an unknown mammal as large as a puma but then, remember that personal incredulity doesn’t count for much. It’s worth noting that, of the more than 30 new mammals described from Europe in the last 100 years, the biggest is a hare (go here for discussion of these species).
Based on the new evidence revealed at the conference, I was interested enough in this issue to take a vote. Yes, I know that science doesn’t work like that, but it’s still worth finding out which way opinions are going. Out of the 24 or so people there to participate, a clear majority (c. 20) thought that Di’s mastiff cat hypothesis was at least worthy of consideration as a hypothesis. And of those c. 20, c. 6 – including myself – had previously thought that Di’s hypothesis was not worthy of serious consideration. Among this number were most of the more experienced, qualified researchers present. Incidentally, the numbers are approximate because I can’t count.
And that’s not all. More to come.
Refs – –
Francis, D. 1983. Cat Country. David and Charles, Newton Abbot.
– . 1993a. The Beast of Exmoor and Other Mystery Predators of Britain. Jonathan Cape, London.
– . 1993b. My Highland Kellas Cats. Jonathan Cape, London.
Shuker, K. P. N. 1989. Mystery Cats of the World. Robert Hale, London.
– . 1990. The Kellas cat: reviewing an enigma. Cryptozoology 9, 26-40.