One last post on British felids, and if you’re bored or uninterested in cats.. well, sorry. Rhinogradentians next (though with a nod to Cretaceous zygodactyl birds, burrowing ornithopods, prosauropods, and the new azhdarchoid pterosaurs that Dave Martill and Mark Witton showed me today). Anyway, in the previous post on the mastiff cat hypothesis I included some discussion of the small, black felids we now know we have in the country. They are named Kellas cats due to the fact that the first specimen to be obtained, a male shot dead in 1983 by Tomas Christie, came from near Kellas in West Moray, Scotland. However, confusingly intertwined with the story of the Kellas cat’s discovery is that of a second small British black cat. It also seems to be something new, yet is far less well known and has most certainly not won the widespread official acceptance that the Kellas cat has (e.g., Kitchener 1991, 1993, Tomkies 1991, Alderton 1993, Morris 1997). This is particularly unfortunate as this second cat seems all the more remarkable…
As mentioned previously, while Christie’s Kellas specimen was obtained in 1983, it didn’t appear in the national press until October 1984. Earlier in 1984, another unusual black Scottish cat had been in the newspapers: it was the Revack cat, an adult male discovered by gamekeeper Ronnie Douglas after it was killed in a snare on the Revack pheasant estate. Measuring 108 cm in total length, the Revack cat was long-legged with particularly large canine teeth, very large triangular ears and a fairly long snout. Passed to the Revack estate’s taxidermist-in-residence Ronnie Buchan, it later went missing, meaning that all we had were photos. The Revack cat has been widely thought to be a Kellas cat, despite the fact that it apparently differed substantially from the other individuals in many characteristics.
In the photo above, Di Francis and I are standing behind a Kellas cat. I’m holding the skin of the Dufftown cat (on which see below). As you may have gathered, Di doesn’t like posing for photos.
During her research on the Kellas cat and the other mystery felids of Britain, Di Francis – the mystery cat researcher I discussed in the previous post – was passed a most remarkable dead black cat by Colin Barclay, gamekeeper of Tomas Christie. Encountered near Dufftown, the cat is today known as the Dufftown cat Though assumed to be another Kellas cat, and similar to cats of this sort in size, colour and build, the Dufftown cat proved to be remarkably different, most notably in the anatomy of its head (see photo of head below). The cat had a roman-nosed look, an upper jaw that overshot the lower, huge ears, and particularly big canines. The shape of its head reminded Di of a rabbit, and for this reason she informally dubbed it a ‘rabbit-headed cat’ (Francis 1993), and unfortunately this name has stuck. Please note that rabbit-headed cats are nothing to do with rabbit cats or cabbits, the Manx cats that have superficially rabbit-like hindquarters and are sometimes half-seriously claimed to be cat-rabbit hybrids. Nor are they anything to do with the old term ‘rabbit cat’ once used for the Abyssinian on account of its supposedly rabbit-like fur (Morris 1997).
The Dufftown cat was later loaned to the Royal Museum of Scotland. Di eventually managed to track down the taxidermist whom the Revack cat had been given to, and luckily he still owned the skin (though it lacked its tail). Is this cat really a Kellas? Di contends that it is another rabbit-headed cat. Additional specimens of what appear to be other rabbit-headed cats are now known from elsewhere in Scotland: the photo above shows the East Kilbride cat (image from here), shot dead by gamekeeper Jimmy McVeigh in 1993. It exhibited the same features as the Dufftown cat and appears to be another example. Yet another is described and pictured in an old newspaper account from the 1930s. That these records are scattered across space and time suggests that, whatever rabbit-headed cats are, they are not siblings from a single litter or anything like that. While we still have the skin of the Dufftown cat, we only have photos of its skull as the real thing was stolen from Di’s house during a burglary, together with many other of her possessions.
This is a pretty tragic loss. Why? Because pretty much everything about the Dufftown cat’s skull looks remarkable [in adjacent image, Dufftown cat skull is on the left, Kellas cat skull is on the right]. It not only differs in its general proportions from the skulls of wildcats and domestic cats, it also exhibits numerous apparently unique features. The roman-nosed shape of the living animal was reflected in its broad and tall nasal opening and vaulted nasal bones (which are apparently different in shape from those of wildcats and domestic cats). Its lower incisors were proportionally smaller than those of wildcats and domestic cats, and the way the upper and lower incisors occluded appeared to be quite different from the style of occlusion present in wildcats and domestic cats. More remarkably, its upper and lower canine teeth were exceptionally long and fitted into special grooves on – respectively – the premaxillae and dentaries. The lower canines would have been even longer when the animal was younger as their tips were heavily worn. The lower jaw looks more robust than that of wildcats and domestic cats, is different in shape, and possesses an accessory process somewhere near the articulation. The number of premolar teeth is different from that of wildcats and domestic cats, and not because the teeth had fallen out due to age or because the sockets had been closed during growth, but apparently because the teeth were never there. The frontals are shallowly concave on their dorsal surfaces, rather than flat as they are in wildcats and domestic cats. Compared to wildcats and domestic cats, its braincase is notably small. The surface texture of its bones is different from that of wildcats and domestic cats. The Dufftown cat skull also seems to lack the shallow pit at the nasal-frontal junction that is diagnostic for domestic cats (Kitchener 1998).
To date, no published opinion other than Di’s exists on the Dufftown cat, to the best of my knowledge (let me know if you know otherwise). It has been reported that at least one mammalogist familiar with the Dufftown cat identified it as a domestic cat, and one that probably incorporated genes from a Siamese or similar breed (Francis 1993, p. 72). Sarah Hartwell, on her excellent messybeast.com site, has also suggested that the unusual cranial shape of the Dufftown cat might result from hybridisation between Scottish wildcats and long-nosed domestic breeds such as the Siamese. I don’t have as much experience with cat skulls as I might like, and in particular I have no access to the skulls of Siamese and similar breeds. But I haven’t seen any indication that any – let alone all – of the unusual features seen in the Dufftown cat skull are also present in domestic cats. Please prove this assertion to be false!
So at the very least I am highly intrigued by this long, very interesting list of differences. What do they mean? I can’t help but feel that, if the Dufftown cat’s skull were a fossil, we’d almost certainly identify it with little hesitation as the representative of a new species. But the idea that Britain might be home to an entirely new, totally overlooked new species of felid is so hard to swallow that, again, I struggle to find it reasonable (though, as usual, that shouldn’t mean anything). It’s this apparent evidence for what might be a new species that I had in mind when I used all that hyperbole in the previous posts (recall that I wrote of ‘jaw-slackeningly amazing’ revelations and so on) [head of Dufftown cat at left].
Of course there are other possibilities. Do these cats owe their unusual appearance to the pleiotropic effects of some sort of genetic disorder, are they actually unusual hybrids of some sort, or are they the result of hitherto undocumented phenotypic plasticity? I find it unlikely that I’m just being naive and stupid, especially when the Dufftown cat skull just looks, well, so natural. It doesn’t look like a freak, and – while this is a very very subjective judgement to make – its anatomical peculiarities look, well, morphologically sensible. I also can’t help noting that – contrary to claims that the involvement of Siamese DNA might account for the unusual rabbit-headed morphology – domestic cats (the most anatomically variable of all small felids) have a highly uniform cranial morphology across their range (French et al. 1988 and references therein).
Whatever rabbit-headed cats are, it’s interesting that the modern British felid fauna is more diverse than anyone thought likely just a few decades ago. Our undoubtedly native Scottish wildcats have been joined by alien jungle cats, leopard cats, lynxes, leopards and pumas, the entirely unexpected Kellas cat, and the rabbit-headed cat. I find this very exciting given that there is still so much we don’t know, and the work has only really just begun. So I apologise again for announcing that loads of ‘revelations’ and ‘scoops’ emerged from the conference; not entirely accurate, least of all to those already familiar with the state of British ABC research. I suppose I was being over enthusiastic. Whatever, I can deal with it.
If any of this has interested you, then you’ll be pleased to hear that the second Big Cats in Britain conference is being organised right now: the provisional dates are 8th-9th March 2008, and the venue is pencilled in as somewhere near Watchet, north Somerset. On the list of ‘things to bring’, I see that ‘A big cat corpse (NB road kill, no shooting) preferably representing an unclassified species’ is down there. Thanks to Rick Minter for this information. I’ll be giving a talk by the way, and have already decided on the title: The deep time history of Britain’s felid fauna. Yay, ‘deep time’, everyone’s favourite phrase of the moment ?
Well that’s it. The only thing left to be said is that I owe my attendance at the conference to a long list of helpful individuals. I sincerely thank the following (listed alphabetically): Robin Drake, Mark Fraser, Josemi Lesaka, Jonathan McGowan, Paolo Malatesta, David Mitchell, Chris Moiser and Bruce Webster.
Coming next: rhinogradentians. Yes, really. I’m talking to Rex Dalton of Nature tomorrow. Why? I will explain when the story breaks.
Refs – –
Alderton, D. 1993. Wild Cats of the World. Blandford, London.
Francis, D. 1993. My Highland Kellas Cats. Jonathan Cape, London.
French, D. D., Corbett, L. K. & Easterbee, N. 1988. Morphological discriminants of Scottish wildcats (Felis silvestris), domestic cats (F. catus) and their hybrids. Journal of Zoology 214, 235-259.
Kitchener, A. 1991. The Natural History of the Wild Cats. Christopher Helm, London.
– . 1993. Investigating the identity of the Kellas cat. In Francis, D. 1993. My Highland Kellas Cats. Jonathan Cape, London, pp. 211-213.
– . 1998. The Scottish wildcat – a cat with an identity crisis? British Wildlife 9, 232-242.
Morris, D. 1997. Cat World: A Feline Encyclopedia. Penguin, New York.
Tomkies, M. 1991. Wildcats. Whittet Books, London.