I’ve pretty much given up on TV. I occasionally watch a few things (The IT Crowd, Doctor Who, QI, Never Mind the Buzzcocks), but mostly it’s all shit and I’d be very happy to not have a TV at all. Once in a blue moon, however, there is something really good. On Friday evening (Jan 16th), BBC 2 screened ‘The Mountains of the Monsoon’ as part of its The Natural World series. This featured wildlife photographer and environmentalist Sandesh Kadur as he travelled about the Western Ghats in quest of wildlife.
The Western Ghats evidently has some awesome wildlife. There are dholes, tigers, leopards, elephants, sambar, gaur, jungle cats, leopard cats, lion-tailed macaques, scimitar-babblers, green pigeons, woodshrikes, eagle owls, fish owls, great hornbills, and hundreds of frogs, lizards and snakes. Several frogs that Sandesh has photographed are new, as-yet-undescribed species, and a shieldtail snake that Sandesh caught and handled was also suggested to be new.
The most famous herp of the region is, I would say, the bizarre, fat, purple frog Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis, which you’ll know well following its publication in 2003 (Biju & Bossuyt 2003) [previously discussed here on Tet Zoo]. The documentary included film of the animal, probably the first taken and certainly the first shown on TV (I think) [adjacent image, from 'The Mountains of the Monsoon', shows Sandesh holding a Nasikabatrachus. Image © BBC]. I hadn’t previously realised how large Nasikabatrachus is, nor how fat and wobbly its back is. Incidentally, the idea that Nasikabatrachus is most closely related to the sooglossids (Seychelles frogs) was mentioned during the documentary. This relationship has been recovered in most phylogenetic studies (Biju & Bossuyt 2003, Frost et al. 2006, Van der Meijden et al. 2007). However, an alternative possibility – that it’s actually more closely related to the African pig-nosed or shovel-nosed frogs (the hemisotids) – has also been suggested (Nussbaum & Wu 2007).
Anyway, the documentary mostly focused on something even more novel: namely, the unresolved identity of a mysterious large cat. Sandesh saw this cat about ten years ago. His sighting occurred during broad daylight, in the high-altitude grasslands around Anamudi, the highest peak south of the Himalayas. Unfortunately the cat was not photographed or filmed. It was large, long-tailed, and had rounded ears and a uniform darkish grey colour. It does not match any known cat, and might therefore represent a new species. In an effort to film the animal, Sandesh set up a camera-trap (a chirping model of a black-capped chickadee was used as bait), and also used a heat-sensitive camera. Unfortunately neither effort yielded any images of the cat [an artist was shown sketching the cat. The head is shown below, and the whole thing at the top of the article. Both images © BBC].
However, Sandesh is not the only person to have seen this cat, for it’s known to the local people (it is ethnoknown, as we say). They call it the Pogeyan, the ‘cat who comes and goes with the mist’. So far as I can tell, the Pogeyan has not previously been mentioned in the extensive literature on mystery cats. It isn’t mentioned, for example, in Karl Shuker’s otherwise comprehensive Mystery Cats of the World (Shuker 1989), and doesn’t seem to be mentioned elsewhere in the cryptozoological literature.
However, while the hypothesis that it might be a new species remains viable, the possibility that the Pogeyan might be a mutant leopard has also been considered. After all, the Pogeyan seems very leopard-like in both size and shape. But has anyone ever reported a spot-less leopard? Indeed they have. The best known individuals are dark, not pale: with spots that have multiplied and coalesced, they’re what’s known as melanotic or pseudo-melanistic, and individuals have been shot both in Malabar, south-west India, and in southern Africa (Shuker 1993, Moiser 1997). Some pseudo-melanistic leopards had a uniform dark brown or black coat, but others exhibited spotting on the face, limbs and flanks. Many other weird, mutant leopards have been identified over the years, including chinchilla mutants (these have cream-coloured coats and blue eyes), erythristic mutants (these are reddish) and albinos. There have even been striped leopards and jaguar-like specimens with rosettes instead of spots (Shuker 1993). Weirdest of all are the ‘cobweb leopards': these are piebald mutants and are blackish, with white hairs scattered throughout the coat [captive cobweb leopard below, from Sarah Hartwell's excellent messybeast site].
The propensity of leopards to develop anomalous colour morphs does make it plausible that the Pogeyan may, after all, be an atypical member of this species. If it is, however, it doesn’t seem to correspond to a mutant already on record. Basically, we await further news on this animal. BBC Wildlife magazine might have included an article on Sandesh Kadur and his research, but I haven’t seen it (I tend to avoid BBC Wildlife these days). And googling ‘Pogeyan’ led me to Sandesh’s blog of the same name. So far as I can see however, he hasn’t (yet) included any discussion of the mystery cat.
Finally, you can watch ‘The Mountains of the Monsoon’ at the BBC iPlayer site (for a limited time) here. Well worth it if you have time. For previous Tet Zoo articles on exotic mystery cats see Multiple new species of large, living mammal (part IV) and Peter Hocking’s big cats: where are you now?
PS – I had my own encounter with a mysterious cat over the weekend. All will be revealed within the next few days.
Refs – –
Biju, S. D. & Bossuyt, F. 2003. New frog family from India reveals an ancient evolutionary link with the Seychelles. Nature 425, 711-714.
Frost, D. R., Grant, T., Faivovich, J., Bain, R. H., Haas, A., Haddad, C. F. B., De Sá, R. O., Channing, A., Wilkinson, M., Donnellan, S. C., Raxworthy, C. J., Campbell, J. A., Blotto, B. L., Moler, P., Drewes, R. C., Nussbaum, R. A., Lynch, J. D., Green, D. M. & Wheeler, W. C. 2006. The amphibian tree of life. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 297, 1-370.
Moiser, C. 1997. The melanotic leopards of Eastern Cape, South Africa. In Downes, J. (ed) The CFZ Yearbook 1997. CFZ (Exeter), pp. 43-50.
Nussbaum, R. A. & Wu, S.-H. 2007. Morphological assessments and phylogenetic relationships of the Seychellean frogs of the family Sooglossidae (Amphibia: Anura). Zoological Studies 46, 322-335.
Shuker, K. P. N. 1989. Mystery Cats of the World. Robert Hale, London.
Van der Meijden, A., Boistel, R., Gerlach, J., Ohler, A., Vences, M. & Meyer, A. 2007. Molecular phylogenetic evidence for paraphyly of the genus Sooglossus, with the description of a new genus of Seychellean frogs. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 91, 347-359.