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.
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]