Tetrapod Zoology

The Hayling Island Jungle cat

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Over the weekend I and a bunch of others from the Southampton Natural History Society visited the collections at the County Museum, Winchester (Hampshire, UK). This is a research collection and local repository, and is not open to the public. We saw tons of stuff and had a great time. I took Will (my 7-year-old) along, and he loved it, spending literally hours looking through drawers of pinned insects and at stuffed things in cases. I see every indication that kids are naturally fascinated by animals and other living things: it’s just that this interest is often not switched on at the right moment, nor is it nurtured or encouraged.

Anyway, in the photos here you can see one of the neatest things in the collection (from my entirely tetrapodocentric perspective of course): it’s the Hayling Island Jungle cat, here being held [image below] by senior keeper of natural sciences Dr Chris Palmer. The Jungle cat or Swamp cat Felis chaus is an Old World felid that occurs from Egypt in the west to southern China in the east. It’s not native to Europe, at least not nowadays. So, when one was run over and killed by a car on Hayling Island, Hampshire, in July 1988, most people were surprised. Another dead one was found in 1989 near Ludlow, Shropshire: back injuries and an underweight condition led to the suggestion that it had starved after being injured by a car (Shuker 1995a, b). British cryptozoologist Karl Shuker now owns this specimen. You might be somewhat surprised to hear that none of this has been reported in the peer-reviewed literature. I’d write it up myself, but I’m kind of busy with other stuff.

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What are Jungle cats doing at large in the UK? Based on sightings and photos, it seems that a number are feral here. A particularly good photo of one was taken in 1992 in Durham, and what seem to have been Jungle cats were seen on Hayling Island and in the Ludlow area prior to the discovery of the 1988 and 1989 corpses. Sightings continue on Hayling Island at least. It’s likely that at least some claimed ‘big cat’ sightings made in Britain are of Jungle cats, given that this animal is larger than a domestic cat and that – on seeing one – most laypeople would misidentify it as a puma or lynx. It has also been proposed that British Jungle cats may be hybridising with domestic cats, given the discovery in the Ludlow area of several animals that look like hybrids (Shuker 1993, 1995b). Jungle cats and domestic cats can and do hybridise, and their offspring are fertile.

Presumably, the British Jungle cats are escapees from collections. As you’ll know if you’re read Britain’s lost lynxes and wildcats, or as you might know anyway, the species was present in Britain during the Pleistocene (Schreve 2001a, b). However, there’s no indication that it persisted into the Holocene. The behaviour of the species in Africa and Asia also indicates that it would be well able to survive in Britain. It adapts well to the presence of humans and can often be found in the vicinity of towns and villages (Nowak 1999). About 70% of its diet is made up of small mammals (mostly lagomorphs and rodents), and there are plenty of those in the British countryside (lagomorphs in particular of course).

Anyway… as always, seeing a ‘famous’ specimen in person, as it were, was a neat event that I wanted to share. Thanks to Chris Palmer for access to the collections. And having mentioned Hayling Island, you might recall that this was the place that made me want to write about godwits.

Refs – –

Nowak, R. M. 1999. Walker’s Mammals of the World, Sixth Edition . The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.

Schreve, D. C. 2001a. Mammalian evidence from Middle Pleistocene fluvial sequences for complex environmental change at the oxygen isotope substage level. Quaternary International 79, 65-74.

– . 2001b. Differentiation of the British late Middle Pleistocene interglacials: the evidence from mammalian biostratigraphy. Quaternary Science Reviews 20, 1693-1705.

Shuker, K. P. N. 1993. The lovecats. Fortean Times 68, 50-51.

– . 1995a. British mystery cats – the bodies of evidence. Fortean Studies 2, 143-152.

– . 1995b. The coming of supercat! Wild About Animals 1995 (1), 20-21.

Comments

  1. #1 Neil
    January 20, 2009

    wow. Did this cat get reported in the news? A local paper at least must have picked this up?

    On the subject of kids and nature, in my experience primary school is where you have to ‘expose’ them to nature. At this age even the kids that are too cool and don’t want to touch the “disgusting animals” eventually join in when they see how much fun the others are having!

  2. #2 Dartian
    January 20, 2009

    The behaviour of the species in Africa and Asia also indicates that it would be well able to survive in Britain.

    Heptner & Sludskii (1992) say that the northern limit of this species in what used to be the Soviet Union roughly follows the +2 C January isotherm*. Which, according to this (slightly outdated) map, means that temperature-wise, the jungle cat should be able to live almost anywhere in the British Isles.

    * Approximately as far north as to the northern shores of the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, respectively.

    However, Heptner & Sludskii also say that chaus is very sensitive to cold spells, which occasionally do occur even in the UK. So I wouldn’t recommend any introductions.

    Reference:

    Heptner, V.G. & Sludskii, A.A. 1992. Mammals of the Soviet Union, Volume II, Part 2: Carnivora (Hyenas and Cats), Smithsonian Institution Libraries, Washington D.C.

  3. #3 Dartian
    January 20, 2009

    the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea

    Sorry, I meant the Aral Sea and the Caspian Sea.

  4. #4 Darren Naish
    January 20, 2009

    Neat, thanks for that.

    Neil: yes, both the Hayling Island and Shropshire cats were reported in newspapers, and they’re also covered in the mystery cat books. But nothing has ever been written up for, say, British Wildlife, Journal of Mammalogy or Mammal Review.

  5. #5 Lilian Nattel
    January 20, 2009

    My kids race through the dinosaurs, which I thought would awe them, but spend a lot more time with the drawers of feathers and eggs in the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum). Not to mention how much time they can spend on a beach at low tide! I’m proud of my girls’ worm and slug and bug and frog holding talents.

  6. #6 shiva
    January 20, 2009

    Ah! You reminded me of something i wanted to ask you about: what you think of this photo (taken in the town i grew up in, incidentally)?

    What it looked most like to me at first is a Savannah Cat, but the tail looks very like that of the Hayling Island jungle cat (which also seems to have the faded remnants of stripes on its flank and legs). I suppose it could also be one of several other “hybrid” domestic breeds, and frankly it wouldn’t surprise me if domestic cats existed which had F. chaus as well as Serval, Leopard Cat, etc genes…

    (Let’s not even comment on the idiocy of the “reporter”‘s reference to “Scottish Wildcats”… in southern England, with a coat pattern nothing whatsoever like that of F. s. grampia…)

    (Incidentally, does the fact that they can all produce fertile (at least in the females) hybrids with domestic cats invalidate the splitting of Leptailurus, Leopardus and Prionailurus from Felis?)

    Not quite sure F. chaus could explain *every* “puma-like” cat sen in Britain (especially the black ones – my strong suspicion is that at least some of those are the SE Asian subspecies of leopard) – but i think you’re right that it could explain some, especially “juvenile pumas”…

    [from Darren: sorry, delayed by spam filter]

  7. #7 Raptor Lewis
    January 20, 2009

    Indeed. What ARE Jungle Cats doing in the United Kingdom?

  8. #8 Jerzy
    January 20, 2009

    It would be interesting to track both cats to a specific zoo or private collection nearby. Wild cats one cannot buy easily, they must be registered under Dangerous Wild Animal Act, and are unlikely to wander really far. So, playing Sherlock Holmes has a chance of success.

    I heard that one of British lynxes was found near a small zoo which regularly advertised lynx cubs for sale… of course nothing was proven and nobody really wanted to pursue the matter.

    BTW – wild cats are, unfortunately, very prone to being run over by cars. I have a friend who is cat lover and says that feral cats never live very long. And there was one reintroduction project of lynxes in Poland near Warsaw, and most of dead lynxes were run over. Happily, the rest established themselves and started to breed.

  9. #9 Elliott Mason
    January 20, 2009

    Any chance of Austroraptor comment?

  10. #10 Nentuaby
    January 21, 2009

    “on seeing one – most laypeople would misidentify it as a puma or lynx.”

    Mrrm, any layperson who has actually laid eyes on puma (we are talking the cougar/mountain lion/catamount, etc. etc. etc. here, right?) and lynx would have to be very, very drunk.

    Well, I suppose you could maybe mistake it for a puma if you didn’t see it very clearly and had no size estimate.

  11. #11 Darren Naish
    January 21, 2009

    Mrrm, any layperson who has actually laid eyes on puma (we are talking the cougar/mountain lion/catamount, etc. etc. etc. here, right?) and lynx would have to be very, very drunk.

    Sure, anyone who knows what they’re talking about is not going to make such a stupid mistake. But here in Britain (and I’m sure this is true of elsewhere in the world too) people in general are completely fucking clueless when it comes to identifying animals other than a cat or a dog, and even then they struggle. I have in fact heard people refer to a Jungle cat as a lynx, I’ve had dealings with people who think that Bagheera from The Jungle Book is a puma, and there have been several cases (e.g., Peter Nixon’s animal of 1992, the Solva 1992 ‘West Wales cat’, the ‘Cornish puma’ photographed in 1997, Clifford Knott’s animal of 2003) where photographed Jungle cats and even domestic cats have been identified as pumas or lynxes.

  12. #12 Darren Naish
    January 21, 2009

    Shiva: I hadn’t seen the Hayley Wharton photo before and can’t identify the animal. Based on its proportions I suspect it’s a domestic cat, but a weird hybrid can’t be ruled out.

    Incidentally, does the fact that they can all produce fertile (at least in the females) hybrids with domestic cats invalidate the splitting of Leptailurus, Leopardus and Prionailurus from Felis?

    Remember that hybridisation doesn’t necessarily tell us much about phylogeny, given that hybrids between different ‘genera’ (e.g., Tursiops and Feresa) and even different ‘families’ (e.g., Phasianus and Tetrao) can all occur. We’d need a geneticist to explain it properly, but it seems to me that the possibility of hybridisation is – in many groups – the ‘default’ condition, only disallowed when chromosomal or developmental novelties get in the way.

    As for Jungle cats explaining puma sighings – I’m not saying this goes for all accounts, just some.

  13. #13 Dartian
    January 21, 2009

    Shiva:

    Incidentally, does the fact that they can all produce fertile (at least in the females) hybrids with domestic cats invalidate the splitting of Leptailurus, Leopardus and Prionailurus from Felis?

    What Darren said. I’d like to add that there are also some species which can hybridize with more distantly related taxa, but not with their closer relatives. An example of this is the species pair mandarin duck Aix galericulata – wood duck Aix sponsa. These two are, in all likelihood, quite recently diverged sister taxa; yet, captive wood ducks readily hybridize with several other anatid species (the hybrids are sterile), but not with mandarin ducks (Dilger & Johnsgard, 1959; Johnsgard, 1965).

    References:

    Dilger, W.C. & Johnsgard, P.A. 1959. Comments on “species recognition” with special reference to the wood duck and the mandarin duck. The Wilson Bulletin 71, 46-53.

    Johnsgard, P.A. 1965. Handbook of Waterfowl Behavior, Cornell University Press, Ithaca.

  14. #14 David Marjanović
    January 21, 2009

    (Incidentally, does the fact that they can all produce fertile (at least in the females) hybrids with domestic cats invalidate the splitting of Leptailurus, Leopardus and Prionailurus from Felis?)

    If you choose to use the “Biological Species Concept”, then yes. But, well, you frankly shouldn’t. There are at least 23 alternatives out there.

    We’d need a geneticist to explain it properly, but it seems to me that the possibility of hybridisation is – in many groups – the ‘default’ condition, only disallowed when chromosomal or developmental novelties get in the way.

    Exactly. Mutations that make fertile hybrids impossible don’t usually appear immediately, and, as Tom Holtz pointed out on the DML long ago, they are often selected against: it is in your genes’ best interest if you have as many potential breeding partners as possible.

  15. #15 hannah
    January 29, 2009

    My mum lives in southwood road, hayling island, i saw a black puma cat at about 4am one morning, it was about 20 meters away and just stood there looking at me, i couldnt beleive what i was seeing, it was too big to be a normal cat, i know what i saw. My mums cat also got killed and several went missing in her street, i think this cat killed them.

  16. #16 nate chard
    May 5, 2009

    hi im doing a report on zoology and in more particular cats i love cats but i need a person to do it on so email if you will help

  17. #17 David Marjanović
    May 5, 2009

    Translation: “hi do my homework for me”

  18. #18 Raymond
    May 5, 2009

    Ouch David, that kind of strikes home. I’ve been trying to round up and figure out the Spec world Multies. So far, the interweb pubs aren’t that “satisfying” to me. I’m hoping Darren will do a damned good over view of this awesome clade.

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