Plants and Animals

New Species of Cat Discovered in South America

November 29, 2013 | by Lisa Winter

Photo credit: Tambako the Jaguar

A new species of cat was discovered in southern Brazil. It was previously known, but incorrectly identified as a different species that lives in the northeast. This announcement comes from lead author Tatiane C. Trigo from the Federal University of Rio Grande du Sol’s Department of Genetics. The results were published in the most recent issue of Current Biology.

This newly discovered species, dubbed Leoparda guttulus was believed to have been the same species as L. tigrinus, a cat that looks incredibly similar with a nearby range that are also known as oncillas. Genetic testing of the mitochondrial DNA of oncillas in the northeastern and southern regions of the cats’ range has confirmed that they are two distinct species who do not interbreed. In fact, they have not interbred for thousands of years. Though the northeastern population is rarer than the southern population, naming tradition requires that the northeastern cats will retain the name L. tigrinus.

L. guttulus is one of the smallest species of South American wild cat, as it isn’t much bigger than a typical domesticated house cat. As full grown adults, these cats weigh about 6.5 pounds (3 kilograms). They are mostly yellow with brown and black spotted markings. Their diet consists of small rodents and birds, which they can easily acquire by nimbly navigating around the trees, though they spend most of their time on the ground. There is still much to be learned about what makes these cats distinct from their previously assumed species and their conservation status will need to be determined to see if they qualify for protection.

Lack of gene flow between L. guttulus and L. tigrinus was likely exacerbated by interbreeding between L. tigrinus and the pampas cat (L. colocolo). There is also evidence that L. guttulus had interbred with Geoffroy’s cat (L. geoffroyi) which also lives in the south. This new information illustrates how much there is to learn about wild cat populations. The more we learn, the better we will be able to protect them and help ensure their survival.

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