Tetrapod Zoology

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In another desperate effort to bump up the number of hits, I thought I’d go with a provocative title. There is, sorry, no such thing as a Frasercot: but it is, however, the answer to the question… to what animal, exactly, does that mysterious skin actually belong? No, it was not feathers, nor scales on a moth’s wing (!), nor the skin of an octopus (!!), but most definitely the pelt of some sort of carnivoran (I enlarged and rotated a section of the adjacent image). But the problem is: that’s about as far as we can go, as no-one really seems to know what it is…

The skin is now owned by Mark Fraser (of the Big Cats in Britain society), and I initially became interested in it because it recalled a superficially similar carnivoran skin (currently touring the country in antique fairs) that I’ve seen in photos [image Mark Fraser, reproduced with permission]. Both skins have a very peculiar ‘fish scale’ pattern where dark brown spots are bordered by lighter brown. As you can see, the pelt is much lighter toward the belly. The fur is quite long, particularly toward the belly and along the midline of what would have been the shoulder region. I don’t have measurements to hand, but you can see from the chair it’s draped on that it’s reasonably large: certainly larger than, say, a small cat like an ocelot or margay or anything like that (not that it looks like any of those species). I don’t know how long the tail is, but will post that information when I get it.

So what the hell is it? If it’s a felid, it’s not one I can identify. One of the most popular informal identifications has been that it’s a Spotted hyaena Crocuta crocuta pelt. I don’t think that this is right, as I’ve never seen a hyaena with markings this dense, or with the peculiar fish scale pattern so evident here.


Some colleagues have suggested that it might be a very densely-spotted leopard. Well, maybe… but, again, I can’t recall ever seeing one that matches this skin in denseness-of-spotting, nor in the fish scale pattern. Furthermore, even the longest-haired of leopards, the critically endangered Amur leopard Panthera pardus orientalis (where the rosettes are ring-like and quite widely spaced) doesn’t have fur this long. Anyway, leopards have rosettes, not solid markings like this. One correspondent suggested that it might be a particularly dark Serval Leptailurus serval. Servals are tremendously variable, but even the most boldly-spotted servals have their spots arranged in rough parasagittal lines, and they don’t have fur this long. No to the tiny Kodkod Oncifelis guigna [shown in adjacent image: borrowed from here], to Marbled cats Pardofelis marmorata, to clouded leopards*, and so on. Oh, and if you’re wondering why I’m using funky generic names like Oncifelis and Leptailurus, then get with the programme dude… the rampant paraphyly of Felis [sensu lato] was recognised long ago.

* While I’m here: following all the excitement about clouded leopard taxonomy (go here) some of you might be interested to know of a third paper (Wilting et al. 2007) that has supported the distinction of the two clouded leopard species Neofelis nebulosa and N. diardi (or N. diardii). These authors found that Bornean and Sumatran clouded leopard grouped together to the exclusion of mainland clouded leopards, and that the populations of the two islands might be recognised as N. diardi subspecies (they proposed the names N. diardi borneensis and N. diardi sumatrensis respectively). They suggest the common name Sundaland clouded leopard for N. diardi.

Might it be a fake? If so, it’s a bloody good one. Painting fur really isn’t very easy, and if you know of, or can devise a technique whereby it’s possible to fake a plausible-looking pelt like this, then please do tell. The close-up detail that I published previously shows that the dark markings grade gradually into the lighter belly-fur in a natural manner: this strikes me a ‘genuine looking’ and very difficult to fake.

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So there we go. If you can provide a match for this animal, a lot of people would be very interested to hear from you. Or am I just being dumb and not looking at the right sort of Spotted hyaenas? Do tell. Incidentally, for those who keep track of these things, another mystery mammal that I discussed here at Tet Zoo – McGowan’s mystery bovid (shown in adjacent image) – is still under investigation, and remains of unknown identity. Jon McGowan and I can now confirm that there is no doubt that the horns are of the original, un-tampered morphology.

Back to work: four days to go before conference season kicks off…

Ref – –

Wilting, A., Buckley-Beason, V. A., Feldhaar, H., Gadau, J., O’Brien, S. J. & Linsenmair, K. E. 2007. Clouded leopard phylogeny revisited: support for species recognition and population division between Borneo and Sumatra. Frontiers in Zoology 4:15. [free pdf here]


  1. #1 Mickey Mortimer
    August 13, 2007

    Wouldn’t the easy solution be to run a DNA test? These neontological mysteries don’t have to remain uncertain forever.

  2. #2 Mike Keesey
    August 13, 2007

    they proposed the names N. diardi borneensis and N. diardi sumatrensis respectively

    By ICZN rules, whichever subspecies the type specimen represents has to be named N. diardi diardi.

  3. #3 peter
    August 13, 2007

    is it the pelt of the infamous and deadly faux?

  4. #4 Stevo Darkly
    August 13, 2007


  5. #5 LabRat
    August 13, 2007

    I’d lay my bet on a wooly cheetah– but mainly for lack of a better guess. It would explain the furriness and the solid blotchy spots instead of rosettes, though.

    According to that link they’ve not been seen since the nineteenth century, but it beats me how old the pelt might be.

  6. #6 Greg Morrow
    August 13, 2007

    Darren, do you have any information on the provenance of the skin?

  7. #7 Alan Kellogg
    August 14, 2007

    Is it the pelt of the infamous and deadly faux?

    And would the father be a faux pa?

  8. #8 sinuous tanystropheus
    August 14, 2007

    Where did the current owner get the pelt? It’s difficult to even start speculating about what it is without having an idea of where it came from.

  9. #9 Dave Hughes
    August 14, 2007

    How long is the tail? It’s not clear from the photo. If it’s short, could the pelt belong to one of the lynx subspecies? According to http://www.felineconservation.org, the Baikal lynx (Lynx lynx kozlowi) is heavily spotted, with a lot of red in the background colour. Your skin seems to have even denser spots than the living Baikal lynx shown on their site, but it might be something close. The pelt gives me the general impression of dense fur, which would be consistent with an animal living in a cold climate.

  10. #10 Jerzy
    August 14, 2007

    Something domestic? My grandparents had the skin with exactly same – not color but hair quality with longer, softer hair on animal’s underparts.

    Ask nearest taxidermist (or are they all undercover now in Britain)?

  11. #11 Sordes
    August 14, 2007

    Very interesting. My first thought was that it could be a fake. I’ve seen once a mysterious pelt at Cryptozoology.com, and it turned out, that it was a dog’s pelt with painted stripes. About a week ago, I saw also a very funny picture of a living dog, which had painted rossettes on its fur like a leoard or jaguar. It was made in a very professional way, probably by a hair-stylist. Anyway it looked cool. But if this is no fake, this is really unusual. The spots look neither feline, no like any hyenas. Perhaps some sort of civet?

  12. #12 Dave Hone
    August 14, 2007

    As a more practical question, how were we supposed to identify the mystery tetrapod from a small fagment of a larger picture of an unknown tetrpod! Give us a chance! 😉

    [from Darren: mu-ha-ha, vengeance is mine. Didn’t I say it was a trick question? What.. I didn’t?]

  13. #13 johannes
    August 14, 2007

    > Marozi?


  14. #14 Matt Bille
    August 14, 2007

    Looking at the illustrations in Shuker, a woolly cheetah does not seem right. If I had to guess, I would say there’s no obvious match and wonder if leopards ever produced an oddball of their own, with a logner coat and strange rosettes.

  15. #15 Tengu
    August 14, 2007

    I would go with hyena…the striped animals vary an awful lot, why not the spotted ones too?

    But hyena fur is very wiry…cats have much softer pelts.

    As for painting furs…I have a pony(?) skin painted very convincingly with leopard spots. (Ill send you a pic one day)

    …or else its the very uncommon giant leopard…

  16. #16 Stevo Darkly
    August 14, 2007

    “My grandparents had the skin with exactly same – not color but hair quality with longer, softer hair on animal’s underparts.”

    They must have been quite the sight at the beach! 😉

  17. #17 S. Fisher
    August 14, 2007

    Could it be a member of the Viveridae? Something along the lines of the Servaline genet (Genetta servalina). Photos of many of the (thirty or so) members of the Viveridae are hard to find.

  18. #18 Noni Mausa
    August 15, 2007

    I was sure it was a felid, but couldn’t go farther than “Maybe a margay?”

    Painting cats is expensive but can be done, see here:http://graphics1.snopes.com/photos/arts/graphics/paintcat11.jpg

    and associated photos here:http://www.snopes.com/photos/arts/paintedcats.asp#photo4

    Another possibility would be a) the felid in question sharing the genetics of siamese, where the coat grows in darker at cooler areas (ears, tail, legs) and lighter on warmer parts of the body) plus b) this cat being raised in confinement in a fish-net, which would resuilt in the coat growing in a natural, fish-scale pattern.

    See? Easy-peasy.


  19. #19 Dr. C
    August 16, 2007

    Possibly a King Cheetah? The pattern is certainly closer than the normal cheetah, or leopard rosettes.

  20. #20 Alan Kellogg
    August 16, 2007

    A small cat? No way. We’re talking about a pelt large enough to cover a chair. Obviously, we’re talking about Felis comfius chairus.

  21. #21 knc3
    August 18, 2007

    Could it be a hybrid of some sort?
    Maybe a Leopard/Jaguar mix?

  22. #22 Edgar
    August 20, 2007

    Very beautiful skin…..but more data are needed(place, time, etc)….or is perhaps the unveiled skin of the Gevaudans beast?

  23. #23 Vivian
    August 20, 2007

    Just do a DNA analysis and stop speculating!!

  24. #24 Niobex
    August 23, 2007

    Interesting..I once saw an article in National Geographic about King cheetahs. Can’t remember exactly what the fur pattern looked like but the photo above just tweaked my memory a little.

  25. #25 Stu
    August 27, 2007

    Any more news on what it belonged to? And do you plan on arranging any DNA testing?

  26. #26 Mary Lynn J
    November 6, 2007

    There’s not enough information to properly identify the animal that this pelt comes from. How about a close up of the paws (what there is of them)? Or how about some info about length of hair, density of hair, body length (approximated from length of pelt shoulder to tail base), and tail length. The beautiful Amur Leopard has fur like this, as does the Snow Leopard. But as far as I know, both have rosettes rather than spots. A genetic variant perhaps? A King Cheetah has spots, but not fur of this length. I pride myself on being able to ID big cats, but you’ve got me with this one. A picture of the skin laid out flat might also help, as I can guage body proportions from it then. It would make it easier to point to what kind of animal we’re talking about. I want to say a cat of some kind, but I can’t be sure at all given only this picture to work with. A real head scratcher!!

    Mary Lynn

    [from Darren: many thanks for your thoughts Mary. Unfortunately I only have this one photo of the specimen at the moment – when I get others (hopefully showing more details, including of the paws etc) I will let you know. I definitely plan to write more about the specimen in the future.]

  27. #27 Celia Hamilton
    November 14, 2007

    I was trying to identify a skin I recently bought, and I came across this blog. My skin looks so much like this though has shorter hair. And may be a little smaller. Hard to tell from the photo. I could send you a photo if you want. I also bought another fur at the time im not quite sure what it was either.

  28. #28 Darren Naish
    November 14, 2007

    Hi Celia

    I’d be very interested in seeing photos of the skins you mention – please do send me images if you have the chance (my email is eotyrannus at gmail dot com}.

  29. #29 Garrett
    January 17, 2008

    My Guess is an ocelot skin

  30. #30 Matt
    June 29, 2009

    That is the pelt of the rare and elusive domestic dog.

  31. #31 Darren Naish
    June 29, 2009

    Yeah, right, sure it is. After all, there are loads of long-haired, brown dogs with dark, closely spaced spots.

  32. #32 Luna_the_cat
    November 18, 2009

    I’ve only handled a couple of hyena pelts, but there is no way that a hyena pelt has that gloss, never mind the spots. I don’t know what it is or whether the spots are dyed in, but based on the gloss of the hair alone I’d have said that had to be felid.

  33. #33 Mongrel
    August 13, 2010

    I can’t believe this is an issue. I agree with Matt, it’s a domestic dog- one that’s obviously been dyed. Welcome to the Chinese fur trade.

  34. #34 NaturePunk
    December 15, 2010

    [from Darren: sorry, delayed by spam filter]

    This is a dog skin that has been dyed to look like a cat skin. Common thing for vendors to do in Asian countries where dogs are killed for fur. I used to see this a lot when I lived there, and they would sell the dyed pelts along with pelts which were left un-altered. They see this sort of thing all the time at the Widlife Forensics Center in Ashland where I live now.

    Here are some links to photos of the vendors selling dog pelts on the streets, trying to convince people that they’re either wolf or big cat skins, a few of which are dyed with THE EXACT same patterns as the pelt pictured above:




    Hope this helps put an end to the mystery!


  35. #35 Eric
    December 17, 2010

    If this pelt is not a fake, then I guess it could belong to the “Malawi terror beast” :


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