Those of you interested in the whole Australian mega-cats issue may recall my discussion of the Lithgow footage, filmed in 2001 by Gail Pound and her husband Wayne on their camcorder. I first saw the footage at a 2006 conference where it was shown and discussed by Australian cryptozoologist Paul Cropper...
To remind you, here is what I said about the footage in that previous blog post...
We start with a daytime shot of a perfectly normal grey domestic cat, sat on a shrub-covered hillside near a stand of trees. Then the camera pans to the right. From behind the trees slowly emerges a big black cat, apparently more than twice the size of the grey domestic cat. Yet its head and face - which we can see in full detail - show without doubt that it is a domestic cat, with vertical pupils, pointed ears, and a dainty snout quite unlike the deeper snout of the large cats. Its shoulder blades appear proportionally big and overall it appears unusually muscular. The ordinary grey cat, sat not less than two metres away, is not in the least perturbed by the presence of this monster. I struggled to understand what I was seeing: was this some sort of trick using forced perspective?
Filmed in 2001 at Lithgow, New South Wales, by Gail Pound and her husband Wayne, the video has been the subject of a lot of discussion and controversy. So far as I can tell there is indeed general agreement that it really does show a monstrously large, black feral cat that some people estimate to be about 1.5 m long in total.
When writing the article, the only image I could find was a single, poor-quality still. The good news is that much better quality stills, and part of the original footage, are now available online: all are accessible from Mike Williams' blog Australian Big Cats. The video alone can be viewed here on youtube. The bad news is that the footage is not the entire, unedited version. While it is clear that the cat is large, the part of the footage featuring the key object required to help judge its size - the 'normal' domestic cat - is missing. Dammit. As Mike notes on his blog, Bill Atkinson from the NSW Department of Primary Industries estimated the large cat's shoulder height at 50 cm based on the size of the adjacent tree (an average puma has a shoulder height of 60-70 cm; an average domestic cat has a shoulder height of 25-30 cm). Cat experts asked to view the footage have agreed that the large cat is two or three times the size of the ordinary domestic cat in the footage.
Since my mega-cats article was posted I've noted much discussion on some message boards about the validity or otherwise of the evidence. The idea that Felis cats might be reaching such enormous sizes is, of course, one that we should be very sceptical about, but as usual I'm bothered by the fact that some people are dismissing the evidence in unsatisfactory fashion. It's true that some of the photos - including two published in the previous article - don't clearly depict unusually large cats, but I don't think anyone really said that they did.
Yes, some photos do make some cats appear larger than they really are, but this doesn't apply in the case of the Lithgow footage, or the Dunkeld footage. The latter is the one where the cat walks close to a kangaroo. Some people noted that the scale is difficult to judge given that we don't know what sort of kangaroo we're seeing for scale. Well, it appears to be an adult Eastern grey Macropus giganteus, an animal that ordinarily stands over 1.5 m tall. As discussed previously, the Dunkeld cat does not - despite its size - seem to be a puma or leopard [adjacent pic of puma from here].
It remains appropriate to be sceptical about all of this given that all the data hasn't yet been released. I will remind interested parties, however, that scepticism is not the same thing as rejectionism. If you still doubt that, for example, the cat shot by Kurt Engel was really as big as he claims.. well, you should await future developments and keep an open mind (I'm speaking as someone with access to as-yet-unreleased information).
I'm now definitely going to be attending the Big Cats in Britain conference, happening at the end of this month in Hull, East Yorkshire.
Curiously, both common names for that American housecat relative, "puma" and "cougar" derive from South American native names: "cougar" from Patagonian, "puma" from Andean. Maybe it's because Spaniards were more inclined to enslave than to exterminate local residents, so more words survived, but it doesn't explain why no Nahuatl name predominates.
Then again, there's that new leopard species found on Borneo.
If it's as different from other leopards as they say, what makes it a leopard at all? Seems to me it deserves its own name. The locals must have one.
I really enjoyed your last post on this topic, I appreciate your skeptical approach. Please let us know what reaction you get at the Big Cats conference!
Nathan: Neofelis diardi is the clouded leopard taxon endemic to Borneo: it's not technically new, as it was first named by Cuvier in 1823 I think.
Two 2006 papers, one by Buckley-Beason et al. (available here) and one by Kitchener et al. (available here) showed that it is worthy of species-level distinction. One wonders about the other clouded leopard 'subspecies' (one of which is extinct). N. diardi does indeed look rather different from the nominate form. Not as cool as the discovery of a brand new extant species of big felid, but cool nonetheless. In fact clouded leopards are cool all round.. must blog about them some time...
For me, your blog is one of the most objective on the web when it comes to cryptozoology.
You don't rush to conclusions, either for or against, you're willing to revisit a subject in case you missed something, I bet you're even willing to change your mind, or even admit you were wrong, although most of the time you'll never need to simply because you have the truly open mind of the true scientist.
You also clearly strive to show people your train of thought and allow then to understand where it seems to be taking you without feeling the need to either snow them with a load of tenditious twaddle intended to allow them no other recourse than to think solely what you want them to think, or make them feel foolish if they don't.
So, very good work indeed, 10/10! (plus three gold stars!)
Just one thing: I once saw a mongrel that was allegedly half Irish Wolfhound, half Chihuahua - it certainly looked as if it was. I've also seen a Dacshund crossed with an Alsatian.
Is it not possible therefore that some exotic big breed cats have been interbreeding with indigenous smaller breed cats?
Those of you reading this blog probably have an interest in large cats. Check out http://thislifesafiction.blogspot.com for a posting on the differentiation of the clouded leopard species (and some very cool pics).
Alan Borky: the suitcase full of money was left next to the rubbish bin on the corner of Barnaby Street.
Sincerely, thanks for the comment.
As for hybridisation, I've been discussing the feral mega-cat (c) issue with colleagues, and this idea is indeed being taken seriously. Have a look some time at Safari cats: they're hybrids between domestic and Geoffroy's cats, but are enormous.
This series of posts has quite interested me.
I'm not a scientist, but I'm an avid follower of evolutionary biology. It seems that there would need to be two prerequisites for giant feral cats to evolve in Australia.
First, you need an open large-carnivore niche. This is of course the case, as Australia has no extant carnivores of size besides the Dingo. Even though Australia is a biologically poor region, there should be open niches for another few large predators.
Second, there needs to be extreme competition for the small-carnivore niche. At least in some regions of Australia, Dasyurids would have to out-compete the cats. A possible indication of this is while feral cats are omnipresent, they don't seem to have played a major role in the decline of small native fauna (unlike New Zealand). So let's say that Quolls and their brethren are much better at capturing the small lizards, and the various small marsupial species.
An additional problem for feral cats is that foxes have established themselves as much more successful carnivores (at least, in terms of their impact on native wildlife) on anything from hamster size up to rock wallaby size.
But there's that open niche for larger carnivores. If the cats cannot out-compete foxes or endemic carnivores, there would be a quick selective pressure to grow larger. Considering cat generations can turn around within a year, this selective pressure shouldn't take too many generations.
Some of this could be proven with field observations. An excellent example would be measuring the size of adult feral cats across the regions the giant cats have been seen. If feral cats are now slightly larger than, say, in Europe, it would suggest selective pressure is at work for the population at large. On the other hand, if typical small cats are where their purported giant cospecifics are located, it would look doubtful, as (examples like Malawi Cichlids aside) it's pretty doubtful you can have a new phenotype evolve when it's still interbreeding with the old phenotype.
Nathan: Oddly enough, a Nahuatl word for 'cougar/puma' has entered English, but not as a term for Puma concolor. The word cacomistle is another term for the Ringtail Cat (Bassariscus astutus, actually a raccoon relative); it derives from Nahuatl tlacomiztli, literally, 'half-cougar'.
Darren. If you email your postal address I will be happy to donate a disc containing an assortment of bigcat clips
including a full account of the Lithgow cat. Also the MM thylacine clip,
Wally, many thanks for the kind offer, I am very very interested in what you suggest. I don't have your email address, so please email me at eotyrannus at gmail dot com, many thanks.
Darren Naish: The idea that Felis cats might be reaching such enormous sizes is, of course, one that we should be very sceptical about...
Have a look some time at Safari cats: they're hybrids between domestic and Geoffroy's cats, but are enormous.
Karl Zimmerman: selection for big domestic-derived cats in Australia.
Nick Pharis: Oddly enough, a Nahuatl word for 'cougar/puma' has entered English, but not as a term for Puma concolor.
First the Felis thing: in British Columbia at least, I was taught (in an undergraduate zoology course) that the local-dwelling "cougar" was properly Felis concolor, so genus Felis can apparently reach 70+ Kg body sizes.
Second, the selection argument - leaving aside the grammatical confusion of "short generation time" and "few generations required" (did Karl mean to say "few years"?), I don't think the 200 or so years that Felis catus has been present in Australia is anywhere near sufficient for speciation and associated extreme phenotypic modification - as I understand it, selection doesn't work nearly that fast. The point was made that interbreeding with recently-arrived-from-Europe domestic cats would seriously slow down any such population differentiation - can anyone here think of a mechanism that would block gene flow between feral and domestic cats?
Third, big hybrids: as I recall, the "liger" or "tigon" or whatever they're called get really big, and there's an argument about hybrids between mammals often showing 'overdominance' of a few phenotypic traits, body size amoung them. Any word on the evolutionary fitness of Safari cats - are they fertile? Do they die young of odd development-associated things like hip dysplasia?
Martin: thanks for your comments. Pumas have indeed been included in Felis from time to time, but only because Felis has historically served as a waste-basket for any cat that wasn't a cheetah. Under our current understanding of felid phylogeny, pumas deserve their own genus (Puma Jardine, 1834) and aren't close to Felis. The biggest member of Felis proper would be Middle Pleistocene specimens of F. silvestris I think.
No idea on fitness and longevity of safari cats - they might (as a breed) be too young for data of this sort.