The Dufftown cat and its rabbit-headed kin

i-d35db7d0ca42d90d9bc05a6f90383387-BCiB with Di.jpg

One last post on British felids, and if you're bored or uninterested in cats.. well, sorry. Rhinogradentians next (though with a nod to Cretaceous zygodactyl birds, burrowing ornithopods, prosauropods, and the new azhdarchoid pterosaurs that Dave Martill and Mark Witton showed me today). Anyway, in the previous post on the mastiff cat hypothesis I included some discussion of the small, black felids we now know we have in the country. They are named Kellas cats due to the fact that the first specimen to be obtained, a male shot dead in 1983 by Tomas Christie, came from near Kellas in West Moray, Scotland. However, confusingly intertwined with the story of the Kellas cat's discovery is that of a second small British black cat. It also seems to be something new, yet is far less well known and has most certainly not won the widespread official acceptance that the Kellas cat has (e.g., Kitchener 1991, 1993, Tomkies 1991, Alderton 1993, Morris 1997). This is particularly unfortunate as this second cat seems all the more remarkable...

As mentioned previously, while Christie's Kellas specimen was obtained in 1983, it didn't appear in the national press until October 1984. Earlier in 1984, another unusual black Scottish cat had been in the newspapers: it was the Revack cat, an adult male discovered by gamekeeper Ronnie Douglas after it was killed in a snare on the Revack pheasant estate. Measuring 108 cm in total length, the Revack cat was long-legged with particularly large canine teeth, very large triangular ears and a fairly long snout. Passed to the Revack estate's taxidermist-in-residence Ronnie Buchan, it later went missing, meaning that all we had were photos. The Revack cat has been widely thought to be a Kellas cat, despite the fact that it apparently differed substantially from the other individuals in many characteristics.

In the photo above, Di Francis and I are standing behind a Kellas cat. I'm holding the skin of the Dufftown cat (on which see below). As you may have gathered, Di doesn't like posing for photos.


During her research on the Kellas cat and the other mystery felids of Britain, Di Francis - the mystery cat researcher I discussed in the previous post - was passed a most remarkable dead black cat by Colin Barclay, gamekeeper of Tomas Christie. Encountered near Dufftown, the cat is today known as the Dufftown cat Though assumed to be another Kellas cat, and similar to cats of this sort in size, colour and build, the Dufftown cat proved to be remarkably different, most notably in the anatomy of its head (see photo of head below). The cat had a roman-nosed look, an upper jaw that overshot the lower, huge ears, and particularly big canines. The shape of its head reminded Di of a rabbit, and for this reason she informally dubbed it a 'rabbit-headed cat' (Francis 1993), and unfortunately this name has stuck. Please note that rabbit-headed cats are nothing to do with rabbit cats or cabbits, the Manx cats that have superficially rabbit-like hindquarters and are sometimes half-seriously claimed to be cat-rabbit hybrids. Nor are they anything to do with the old term 'rabbit cat' once used for the Abyssinian on account of its supposedly rabbit-like fur (Morris 1997).

The Dufftown cat was later loaned to the Royal Museum of Scotland. Di eventually managed to track down the taxidermist whom the Revack cat had been given to, and luckily he still owned the skin (though it lacked its tail). Is this cat really a Kellas? Di contends that it is another rabbit-headed cat. Additional specimens of what appear to be other rabbit-headed cats are now known from elsewhere in Scotland: the photo above shows the East Kilbride cat (image from here), shot dead by gamekeeper Jimmy McVeigh in 1993. It exhibited the same features as the Dufftown cat and appears to be another example. Yet another is described and pictured in an old newspaper account from the 1930s. That these records are scattered across space and time suggests that, whatever rabbit-headed cats are, they are not siblings from a single litter or anything like that. While we still have the skin of the Dufftown cat, we only have photos of its skull as the real thing was stolen from Di's house during a burglary, together with many other of her possessions.

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This is a pretty tragic loss. Why? Because pretty much everything about the Dufftown cat's skull looks remarkable [in adjacent image, Dufftown cat skull is on the left, Kellas cat skull is on the right]. It not only differs in its general proportions from the skulls of wildcats and domestic cats, it also exhibits numerous apparently unique features. The roman-nosed shape of the living animal was reflected in its broad and tall nasal opening and vaulted nasal bones (which are apparently different in shape from those of wildcats and domestic cats). Its lower incisors were proportionally smaller than those of wildcats and domestic cats, and the way the upper and lower incisors occluded appeared to be quite different from the style of occlusion present in wildcats and domestic cats. More remarkably, its upper and lower canine teeth were exceptionally long and fitted into special grooves on - respectively - the premaxillae and dentaries. The lower canines would have been even longer when the animal was younger as their tips were heavily worn. The lower jaw looks more robust than that of wildcats and domestic cats, is different in shape, and possesses an accessory process somewhere near the articulation. The number of premolar teeth is different from that of wildcats and domestic cats, and not because the teeth had fallen out due to age or because the sockets had been closed during growth, but apparently because the teeth were never there. The frontals are shallowly concave on their dorsal surfaces, rather than flat as they are in wildcats and domestic cats. Compared to wildcats and domestic cats, its braincase is notably small. The surface texture of its bones is different from that of wildcats and domestic cats. The Dufftown cat skull also seems to lack the shallow pit at the nasal-frontal junction that is diagnostic for domestic cats (Kitchener 1998).

To date, no published opinion other than Di's exists on the Dufftown cat, to the best of my knowledge (let me know if you know otherwise). It has been reported that at least one mammalogist familiar with the Dufftown cat identified it as a domestic cat, and one that probably incorporated genes from a Siamese or similar breed (Francis 1993, p. 72). Sarah Hartwell, on her excellent site, has also suggested that the unusual cranial shape of the Dufftown cat might result from hybridisation between Scottish wildcats and long-nosed domestic breeds such as the Siamese. I don't have as much experience with cat skulls as I might like, and in particular I have no access to the skulls of Siamese and similar breeds. But I haven't seen any indication that any - let alone all - of the unusual features seen in the Dufftown cat skull are also present in domestic cats. Please prove this assertion to be false!

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So at the very least I am highly intrigued by this long, very interesting list of differences. What do they mean? I can't help but feel that, if the Dufftown cat's skull were a fossil, we'd almost certainly identify it with little hesitation as the representative of a new species. But the idea that Britain might be home to an entirely new, totally overlooked new species of felid is so hard to swallow that, again, I struggle to find it reasonable (though, as usual, that shouldn't mean anything). It's this apparent evidence for what might be a new species that I had in mind when I used all that hyperbole in the previous posts (recall that I wrote of 'jaw-slackeningly amazing' revelations and so on) [head of Dufftown cat at left].

Of course there are other possibilities. Do these cats owe their unusual appearance to the pleiotropic effects of some sort of genetic disorder, are they actually unusual hybrids of some sort, or are they the result of hitherto undocumented phenotypic plasticity? I find it unlikely that I'm just being naive and stupid, especially when the Dufftown cat skull just looks, well, so natural. It doesn't look like a freak, and - while this is a very very subjective judgement to make - its anatomical peculiarities look, well, morphologically sensible. I also can't help noting that - contrary to claims that the involvement of Siamese DNA might account for the unusual rabbit-headed morphology - domestic cats (the most anatomically variable of all small felids) have a highly uniform cranial morphology across their range (French et al. 1988 and references therein).


Whatever rabbit-headed cats are, it's interesting that the modern British felid fauna is more diverse than anyone thought likely just a few decades ago. Our undoubtedly native Scottish wildcats have been joined by alien jungle cats, leopard cats, lynxes, leopards and pumas, the entirely unexpected Kellas cat, and the rabbit-headed cat. I find this very exciting given that there is still so much we don't know, and the work has only really just begun. So I apologise again for announcing that loads of 'revelations' and 'scoops' emerged from the conference; not entirely accurate, least of all to those already familiar with the state of British ABC research. I suppose I was being over enthusiastic. Whatever, I can deal with it.

If any of this has interested you, then you'll be pleased to hear that the second Big Cats in Britain conference is being organised right now: the provisional dates are 8th-9th March 2008, and the venue is pencilled in as somewhere near Watchet, north Somerset. On the list of 'things to bring', I see that 'A big cat corpse (NB road kill, no shooting) preferably representing an unclassified species' is down there. Thanks to Rick Minter for this information. I'll be giving a talk by the way, and have already decided on the title: The deep time history of Britain's felid fauna. Yay, 'deep time', everyone's favourite phrase of the moment :)

Well that's it. The only thing left to be said is that I owe my attendance at the conference to a long list of helpful individuals. I sincerely thank the following (listed alphabetically): Robin Drake, Mark Fraser, Josemi Lesaka, Jonathan McGowan, Paolo Malatesta, David Mitchell, Chris Moiser and Bruce Webster.

Coming next: rhinogradentians. Yes, really. I'm talking to Rex Dalton of Nature tomorrow. Why? I will explain when the story breaks.

Refs - -

Alderton, D. 1993. Wild Cats of the World. Blandford, London.

Francis, D. 1993. My Highland Kellas Cats. Jonathan Cape, London.

French, D. D., Corbett, L. K. & Easterbee, N. 1988. Morphological discriminants of Scottish wildcats (Felis silvestris), domestic cats (F. catus) and their hybrids. Journal of Zoology 214, 235-259.

Kitchener, A. 1991. The Natural History of the Wild Cats. Christopher Helm, London.

- . 1993. Investigating the identity of the Kellas cat. In Francis, D. 1993. My Highland Kellas Cats. Jonathan Cape, London, pp. 211-213.

- . 1998. The Scottish wildcat - a cat with an identity crisis? British Wildlife 9, 232-242.

Morris, D. 1997. Cat World: A Feline Encyclopedia. Penguin, New York.

Tomkies, M. 1991. Wildcats. Whittet Books, London.


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What's interesting is the bones around the eyes, I believe extensions of the frontal and zygomatic, appear to be fused or nearly fused. All the cat skulls, domestic or otherwise, I've seen in pictures this trait has not been present. In my own backyard I did manage to find a cat skull which had the fused bones, hence all the looking at pictures. The overall shape did seem reminescent of the "rabbit-headed cat", but gosh darnit, I left the skull a few states south. Hopefully if I get some pictures I'll be able to tell for sure.

And no, I don't think you were being over-enthusiastic. Despite having heard most of this before, it's all a lot more interesting and comprehensible in this blog form. You sure do live on one strange little island...

Thanks for the ABC series, Darren. We have our own such stories/sightings here in New Zealand, but with nowhere near the amount of evidence that you have.

In a related note, I came across this story today.

Astounding. I've heard of the saber-toothed catfish of Borneo, and I really thought that was untoppable, but that saber-toothed duftown cat is utterly unexpected. It reminds me of the Peruvian Mohawk Dogs (see the bottom post of my blog at http://www.the-arc-ddeden/ which are also said to have congenital deformed dental condition, IIRC lacking sub-molars, they eat molluscs at the Peruvian coast. (I've suggested elsewhere that they were selected for hairlessness for waterfowl retrieving used by duckhunters in coastal Peru 5ka in dug-out canoes with bola-nets and reed decoys.)

Also, I've got a pic of the notoriously rare Liverpudlian Lime-Headed Cat over at my band's music site at MySpace at just click on the song Maafkan Ku and the pic will pop up onscreen. I've no idea the size of this feline, nor the level of ferocity.

[If the links don't work, click on the Blue DDeden.]


From the look of the skull, I think we may have a different line of descent here. One which may have split off from the line leading to cloud leopards very early in felid evolution. We may even have a native European feline family in the rabbit-headed cat.

But why wasn't it noticed before? Because people tend to see what they expect to see. More often then you'd think it takes. a close examination to reveal the differences, witness the newly discovered species of cloud leopard. And cats do tend to be furtive and most often spotted in situations where distinguishing characteristics are hard to spot.

Methinks a PHD candidate in zoology could put together a most interesting thesis by doing a field study of the area the first rabbit-headed cat specimen came from.

Great post here! =) Is it possible that such overlooked species exist practically everywhere, but are only "coming out" in Britain due to the intense level of human activity and interest on the island?

Ya finally quit danglin' the carrot an' hopped to it Doctor Naish:D!!!

" While we still have the skin of the Dufftown cat, we only have photos of its skull as the real thing was stolen from Di's house during a burglary, together with many other of her possessions."

Must just be a common burglary indeed....
Pisses me off, as it is obvious from the photos and the literature Ms. Francis knew very well she had something special and had no intention of ever letting it get "lost", "destroyed" or "misplaced" like quite a few other cryptozoological artifacts we've all heard of.
One thing it does share in common with the others, it's been "disappeared". >B(

My condolences to her.

How about it just being a horribly inbred feral cat? Cats with extra legs and the like are fairly common amongst feral populations. The fact that the canines press up into the bones of the maxilla argues fairly strongly for it representing a pathology rather than anything new.

While we still have the skin of the Dufftown cat, we only have photos of its skull as the real thing was stolen from Di's house during a burglary

Bummer. If only there had been, somewhere in the UK, a safe place. A museum, perhaps, to which the specimen could have been donated. Or even a local natural history society that could have arranged for safe storage. And perhaps a local or regional natural history journal that could have published an account of the discovery and perhaps some photos and measurements.

If only those things existed!

What a sick world.

By Microcephalic Larry (not verified) on 31 Mar 2007 #permalink

Darren: first, don't take the teasing about teasing seriously. Second, don't ever lose that sense of wonder that makes you gush over things like weird cats in Britain.

I wish it could be otherwise, but I have to say I can't help agreeing with the general attitude of the last few comments. Until some of these alleged specimens are studied by competent authorities and the results published in a peer-reviewed journal, this is all just anecdote and hearsay. This whole business of the disappearing 'rabbit-headed cat' skull just sounds too fishy to me. What kind of burglar steals something like that? And you mention somewehere there's a 'book on the way'? Oh well, that might explain a lot! Some more cash to be raked in from people that don't remember 'Cat Country' I assume? Well, I do remember seeing that book back when it came out in the early 80s. At that time I was just an impressionable Zoology undergrad, but even then I thought the whole thing was guff and until there's some independently verifiable evidence otherwise - I still do.

By DeepSeaDave (not verified) on 31 Mar 2007 #permalink

Hmm, well. As I've said several times at least, my concern with writing about these sorts of things is that I might come across as credulous or stupid for getting involved, and I often regret it. Obviously the lack of specimens and so on continues to be a problem, as does the fact that many of the people involved are not interested in publishing what results they have in the technical literature (please see my comment on the previous post).

Whether the loss of the Dufftown cat skull might seem fishy or not, the several photos (some of which have been published) demonstrate that it existed. Of course I agree that 'competent authorities' need to look at the relevent specimens, but then the need for further study is exactly what drives me to write this stuff. I should add that the embargoed stuff I now know about has been examined and verified by felid expert Dr Andrew Kitchener of the National Museums of Scotland.

Most of the assertions that are made about mysterious animals don't hold up, and often the sort of evidence involved doesn't hold up to the standards we're used to. But when we're dealing with cases that involve corpses and bones, we have something to evaluate, and surely that's what we're doing here. I try to be empirical and sceptical, but - in mystery animal cases such as this - I still remain impressed by the evidence.


Those specimens suffering from some sort of malformation rarely, if ever, exhibit such a degree of symmetry. They tend to be somewhat asymmetrical. In addition, an animal with severe facial malformations also tends to exhibit post cranial problems as well.

As to giving the skull to a museum; first you need to get the museum interested. A letter won't do it, you need to take your specimen to the museum and see if you can get a curator's attention.

Should you somehow catch a live specimen I'd recommend taking the animal to the nearest zoological garden, walking up to the front entrance, and asking one of the ticket sellers there, "Have you ever seen a face like this before?" :)

I did finally get picture of the cat skull on my flickr site. The odd nasal opening seems very similar to the Dufftown cat as well as the overall robustness. Too bad the mandible was rather damaged and the canines fell out. Of course I'm not suggesting that they're identical, but it seems like the typical cat skulls shown aren't necessarily representative of the diversity of the species. And I also conclude to name yahoo mail accounts better as to not have a rather unprofessional sounding flickr name, yeesh.

Thanks for sharing your skull photos. I'm not sure, but your specimen seems to lack a small anterior upper premolar. This and various other features indicates that it's not a domestic cat: is it a bobcat? I don't think that bobcats have a closed postorbital bar however (but then, neither do domestic cats).

From the look of the skull, I think we may have a different line of descent here. One which may have split off from the line leading to cloud leopards very early in felid evolution. We may even have a native European feline family in the rabbit-headed cat.

I'm not saying you're wrong -- I just need to say one thing: never try to do cladistics with one character.

BTW, was the postorbital bar of the Dufftown cat really closed? The photo allows this possibility, but its resolution is not high enough to decide when the skull is photographed at this angle.

(An intriguing skull it is.)

BTW, DDeden, the URL of your blog is (with an optional www. behind the slashes), and the bottom post at that site is currently about song lyrics, not about the Peruvian Mohawk dogs. Could you provide a direct link to the post, please?

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 01 Apr 2007 #permalink

As soon as I did a dorsal comparison with a bobcat, it clearly became a better match than some weird domestic cat. Oh what a magnificent blunder considering the genetic difference, now I'll have to blog and thoroughly disprove myself. Exactly what a bobcat was doing dying in a 20 acre bramble patch in the middle of suburbia is beyond me...

DeepSeaDave comments:
This whole business of the disappearing 'rabbit-headed cat' skull just sounds too fishy to me. What kind of burglar steals something like that?


I don't know much about ABCs or the evidence for them, but I know a lot about burglars, thanks to a number of years on the police beat of American newspapers.

Generally, burglars divide into two categories. There are the professionals (mostly drug addicts in the US) who specialize in high-value items like TVs and then there are kids, usually teenagers and usually from the neighborhood, who steal whatever attracts their fancy. I've seen recovered loot from kids' burglaries that included weirder things than a cat skull.

The fact that there was a lot of stuff taken also suggests kids. The professionals are usually in an out in a matter of minutes with relatively few high-value items. The kids take a lot more stuff and do stupid things like fixing themselves a snack.

--Rick Cook

By Rick Cook (not verified) on 02 Apr 2007 #permalink

As to whether people will steal skulls, I once caught a kid stealing a pony's skull I had prepared from my back garden - he'd ignorred miscellaneous other skulls because he thought the pony skull was from "a dinosaur"!!!!

Unfortunately had to get rid of my small skull collection when I was moving house - my wife was concerned that they would put off potential purchasers (maybe they'd think we were some sort of wackos), she thought it bad enough that the house and garden looked like a cross between a library and an unkepmt botanic garden, adding animal morgue was just a step too far...

By Mark Lees (not verified) on 02 Apr 2007 #permalink

[I meant, Bottom of my blog = oldest post, number 1 post]

My URL should bring up the photo of the dogs, however for more info (and speculation on hunting) see these:

Article on mohawk dog (non-Scientific)

Discussion on the dogs,436685,436685#msg-436685

[I have found absolutely nothing visual (photos, diagrams) regarding the teeth, and very little text.

The Sphynx cats (hairless cats from Boulder, Colorado and somewhere in Canada) also are said to suffer from dental anomalies, but again I've no pics or text specific to that.

Hairless dogs are not uncommon along equatoreal coasts.

Ah, OK. I was looking for information on their teeth...

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 03 Apr 2007 #permalink

I just finished up a post for the skull, and it does indeed have an anterior upper premolar socket. I've also found a couple pictures of housecat skulls with fused or nearly fused postorbital bars. While the comparisons taken together seem to indicate something similar to a housecat, there still are some strange characteristics. So I guess I'll tenuously flip-flop here, but I'm sure you have something to say about it...

Good work Cameron - I'll read the post at length later today. It currently doesn't seem possible to post comments to your post: you might want to change the settings (as I doubt this was deliberate).

And yes, last night's inauguration went fine, thanks.

I'm just coming in at the tail end of this conversation, but I'd like to mention a couple of things...

First, a roughly cat-sized wild felid would pass unremarked anywhere there are people, because we're used to seeing cats. It's one thing to see a triangular silent black flying object with a brilliant headlight chasing you along the road -- people will believe you saw something extraordinary because we know of nothing that remotely similar. But who's going to get excited if you run back into the house and say, "Fred! Wilma! I just saw a ... really unusual ... cat..." ?

Secondly, when I first heard of ABCs, I read a bit about leopards, and I am impressed. They are native right across Europe and Asia, they are quite variable in size and habits, and they seem like the most adaptable of the felids. So why shouldn't they show up now and then in the UK? They can walk, run and swim... no worries.

Finally, a personal story from the Canadian prairies. Late one summer, perhaps four years ago, I was driving along a road in a provincial park, when off to my left I saw a man walking through a dry-grass field. Bounding along perhaps fifty feet ahead of him was a black animal about the size of a labrador but with the structure and manner of movement of a small jaguar. The two of them were no more than 300 feet from me. It was early afternoon. I am still convinced that the animal was a felid, not a canid. Before I could stop the car, turn around or follow them, they had gone out of sight into some trees.

This sighting would be easy to dismiss except that for some ten years I raised and trained and showed purebred dogs, attended scads of shows, and did some judging too. I know of no dog breed or crossbred shaped like or moving like that man's "jaguar". (Not "leopard" because jaguars are stockier than leopards, and much more so than cougars.)

What are the chances that this fellow was out walking his black jaguar in a crowded provincial park in full summer? Damn if I know.


By Noni Mausa (not verified) on 21 May 2007 #permalink

Actually Darren, you are holding the skin of the Revack cat ( a Kellas not a rabbit head)


Actually Darren, you are holding the skin of the Revack cat ( a Kellas not a rabbit head) and the othe cat on the ground is the East Klbride cat shot by Jimmy McVeigh in 1993


I'm confused. I thought that the Revack cat was a rabbit-headed cat that was initially suggested to be a Kellas. I also thought that the skin was of the Dufftown specimen. Note that the corpse photographed on the ground is correctly identified in the article as that of the East Kilbride cat. If I've screwed up I'll make corrections: let me know. Thanks for your comments.

Hello, I was doing reaserch on why my cat , he has long big cannine teeth and came across this the photo of the cats resembles mine .I think my cat is half breed of this or just looks similiar looks so much alike in face ,black,the roman nose, I will have to get pics of my cat . he's pretty tall and long and lean, weighs only 11 maybe 12 pounds.
Everyone even my vet is fascinated on his extremely long fangs that hang out.

By Amanda Rojas (not verified) on 29 Nov 2008 #permalink

I have only just came across this article, i have just finished reading Di Francis's book- My Highland Kellas Cats, i really enjoyed this book and was unable to put it down until i had finished it, I am very sorry to hear of Di's misfortune with the burglary. I too thought that Di had only one speciman of "the rabbit headed cat" which was then given to a university with only the skull of the cat coming back which was a different type of skull to the Kellas Cats, I felt quite indignant and upset on Di's behalf that this Dufftown cat skull was not investigated more, as the book i read was written many years ago, I wondered if Di had managed to collect more specimans of "Rabbit headed cats" and also if she had managed to get any more kittens from her Kellas cats?

By jane marney (not verified) on 28 Jun 2011 #permalink

It looks superficially like an oriental cat - here's a skull of a siamese cat at a similar angle.…
It is a silly two-headed mount. Yes. But it does show that the cats are distinctly different - especially through the nose and jaw.
It's easy to see how they could go unnoticed for so long, being a shy and stealthy creature that looks so darn much like an outdoor cat.