Thanks to everyone who offered an opinion and submitted their thoughts on that photo – and there were no silly answers, because I feel the real answer was not necessarily easy. As some of you correctly determined, the cat was actually not an unfamiliar or obscure species – just the opposite – it’s just that it represented a body shape and/or geographical variant of this species that we’re not used to seeing…
The proportionally long tail shows that this can’t be a small cat like a golden cat; it’s difficult to be sure from the photo, but the cat also looks much larger than a golden cat [Asian golden cat Profelis/Catopuma temminckii shown below; image reoriented from here]. The forelimbs and shoulders of the ‘mystery cat’ have the robust musculature typical of big cats and not seen in small or mid-sized felids like golden cats. The proportions are totally off for a cheetah (melanistic individuals have been reported from Kruger National Park, but I don’t think they’ve been verified), and the tail looks too long for a puma (whether there have ever been melanistic pumas remains the source of debate. A Costa Rican animal shot in 1959 is often said to have been melanistic but this is hard to confirm from the only photograph. Young & Goldman (1946) wrote of a definite black puma shot in Brazil in 1843 (although no photos exist), and a few sources (e.g., Brakefield 1993) might be referring to this when they say that only one melanistic puma is on record).
So what was it? Well, it was, after all, ‘just’ a Leopard Panthera pardus. Specifically, it’s a melanistic Malaysian leopard. Interestingly, the leopards in peninsular Malaysia appear to be mostly melanistic, with normal-type spotted leopard definitely in the minority. This isn’t a new observation by the way: Guggisberg (1975), and others before him, mentioned it. While the conventional explanation for felid melanism is that it aids concealment in dark, forested habitats, researchers are now wondering whether the melanism prevalent in some areas has evolved to combat fungal and bacterial infections, as has been proposed for melanism in humans (Mackintosh 2001). I learnt this from an article published by Fiona Sunquist in National Wildlife Magazine (see it online here); thanks to Richard Hing for bringing it to my attention. Sunquist’s article was the source of the photo I used, and you can see other photos of similarly gracile melanistic leopards (perhaps even the same individual) there too.
I suppose these Malaysian leopards are of the subspecies P. p. delacouri, the Indochinese leopard. 27 leopard subspecies have been named (Green 1991), but a recent genetic revision brought this down to nine (Uphyrkina et al. 2001). P. p. delacouri is among the survivors, but its distinctiveness was not tremendously well supported due to limited sampling. Of course, if I started talking about the diversity and phylogeography of leopards I’d be here all day, and this is meant to be a short article [map at bottom shows geographical range of the leopard].
Personally, I thought the Malaysian leopard in the image looked odd: its hindlimbs and tail are unusually slender compared to what I’m used to, and its belly is much shallower than, again, I’m used to in a big cat. If this cat had been photographed somewhere in the world where leopards are not currently native, I think I would have a hard time identifying it. As Shiva correctly pointed out, we are generally used to seeing both (1) leopards that belong to different populations/subspecies from this (the leopards we mostly see in zoos and on TV are east African [the nominate subspecies P. pardus pardus] or Indian [P. p. fusca]), and (2) heavy-bodied or even overweight leopards that have been languishing in captivity and have not endured the hardships that their wild cousins do. Leopards are incredibly variable, not only in body size (adults range from 91-191 cm in head + body length, with the weight of adult males ranging from 37 to 90 kg), fur length and coloration, but also, clearly, in how robust they look.
As I mentioned in the previous post, the reason I find this particularly interesting is that some of the enigmatic melanistic cats that have been reported from the UK have been described as unusually gracile compared to ‘normal’ leopards. So… some of them might be Indochinese leopards. Incidentally (I don’t have time to properly tie this into the rest of the discussion but can’t not mention it), there are indications that, mostly due to their behaviour, leopards are resistant to genetic bottlenecks and that large populations may be genetically stable over long periods (Spong et al. 2000).
For previous Tet Zoo felid articles, there’s my take on clouded leopards here, an article on Peter Hocking’s mysterious big cats here, thoughts on lynxes and European wildcats here, and a look at gigantism in feral domestic cats here. As for Kellas cats (which may or may not be the same thing as the cait sidhe from Celtic folklore), I’ve previously written about them at Tet Zoo here.
Ok, so this isn’t the article on the group of animals that have evolved beaks, are partially herbivorous, can spray poison, can be extremely tolerant to cold, and – in the big species – can easily bite open a human hand… but that’s coming next, I ‘promise’. In other news, a biography of Mike P. Taylor has just appeared in the online version of Science (after all, Mike does need some media exposure), today is final submission today for a long-in-the-pipeline Witton & Naish manuscript, and yesterday saw another meeting regarding what will, no doubt, be the best conference of all time. More on that later.
Refs – –
Brakefield, T. 1993. Big Cats: Kingdom of Might. Voyageur Press, Stillwater, MN
Green, R. 1991. Wild Cat Species of the World. Basset Publications, Plymouth.
Guggisberg, C. A. W. 1975. Wild Cats of the World. David & Charles, Newton Abbot & London.
Mackintosh, J. A. 2001. The antimicrobial properties of melanocytes, melanosomes and melanin and the evolution of black skin. Journal of Theoretical Biology 211, 101-113.
Spong, G., Johansson, M. & Bj๖rklund, M. 2000. High genetic variation in leopard indicates large and long-term stable effective population size. Molecular Ecology 9, 1773-1782.
Uphyrkina, O., Johnson, W. E., Quigley, H., Miquelle, D., Marker, L., Bush, M. & O’Brien, S. J. 2001. Phylogenetics, genome diversity and origin of modern leopard, Panthera pardus. Molecular Ecology 10, 2617-2633.
Young, S. P. & Goldman, E. A. 1946. The Puma: Mysterious American Cat. The American Wildlife Institute, Washington.