Corsica's 'cat-fox': On the trail of what may be a new species

Wildlife rangers in Corsica believe that felines they have been researching, known as "cat-foxes", are a new, as yet u
Wildlife rangers in Corsica believe that felines they have been researching, known as "cat-foxes", are a new, as yet unclassified species

In the forest undergrowth of northern Corsica, two wildlife rangers open a cage to reveal a striped, tawny-coated animal, one of 16 felines known as "cat-foxes" in the area and thought to be a new species.

"We believe that it's a wild natural species which was known but not scientifically identified because it's an extremely inconspicuous animal with nocturnal habits," says Pierre Benedetti, chief environmental technician of the National Hunting and Wildlife Office (ONCFS).

"It's a wonderful discovery," he tells AFP, holding the feline—called "Ghjattu volpe" in Corsican—found in Asco forest on the French Mediterranean island.

While resembling a domestic cat in some ways, the ring-tailed feline measures 90 centimetres (35 inches) from head to tail, has "very wide" ears, short whiskers and "highly developed" canine teeth.

Other distinguishing features include the stripes on the front legs, "very dark" hind legs and a russet stomach. The dense, silky coat is a natural repellent for fleas, ticks and lice.

The tail usually has two to four rings and a black tip.

"It's their size and their tail that earned them the name 'cat-fox' across the island," says Benedetti.

The animals are found in a remote habitat where there is "water and plant cover offering protection against its main predator, the golden eagle," says Carlu-Antone Cecchini, ONCFS field agent in charge of forest cats.

Among its features are "highly developed" canine teeth. So-called cat-foxes gain their nickname from their size and th
Among its features are "highly developed" canine teeth. So-called cat-foxes gain their nickname from their size and their tails

Using nonviolent methods, the ONCFS has since 2016 captured 12 of 16 felines seen in the area, releasing them again after a quick examination.

Now, they say, they hope to have "this cat recognised and protected" within two to four years.

Legend has it

"The cat-fox is part of our shepherd mythology. From generation to generation, they told stories of how the forest cats would attack the udders of their ewes and goats," says Cecchini.

The "cat-foxes" were known about in Corsica but not scientifically identified because they remain remote and nocturnal
The "cat-foxes" were known about in Corsica but not scientifically identified because they remain remote and nocturnal

After years of playing cat and mouse, one of the animals "was caught unexpectedly in 2008 in a chicken coop at Olcani in Cap Corse," says Benedetti, who has been researching the species for more than 10 years.

Research got under way and, in 2012, with the help of a method involving essence attractive to cats and a wooden stick which they rub against leaving traces of their fur, they were able to determine its genetic make-up.

"By looking at its DNA, we could tell it apart from the European wildcat, Felis silvestris silvestris. It's close to the African forest cat, Felis silvestris lybica, but its exact identity is still to be determined," Benedetti adds.

With advanced photographic and later physical traps, the researchers captured their first "cat-fox" in 2016.

  • Pierre Benedetti (L) and Carlu-Antone Cecchini (R), of the National Hunting and Wildlife Office (ONCFS), have been researching t
    Pierre Benedetti (L) and Carlu-Antone Cecchini (R), of the National Hunting and Wildlife Office (ONCFS), have been researching the "cat-foxes" and hope to have them recognised and protected within four years
  • Using nonviolent methods, the ONCFS rangers in Corsica have since 2016 captured 12 of 16 felines seen in the area, releasing the
    Using nonviolent methods, the ONCFS rangers in Corsica have since 2016 captured 12 of 16 felines seen in the area, releasing them again after a quick examination

There are still many mysteries surrounding the cat.

Its diet and reproductive patterns are yet to be studied but Benedetti has a theory that the cat could have been brought to Corsica by farmers 6,500 years BC.

"If the hypothesis is true, its origins are Middle Eastern," he says.

The identification chip in the neck of the animal being shown to AFP helps reveal that it is a male of between four and six years old, already caught a few times before and has a damaged eye caused by a fight with another male.

After examination, the cat with one green eye and one brown eye is free to go, leaving behind its GPS collar with 80 days' data.


Explore further

Ancient DNA reveals role of Near East and Egypt in cat domestication

© 2019 AFP

Citation: Corsica's 'cat-fox': On the trail of what may be a new species (2019, June 19) retrieved 14 October 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2019-06-corsica-cat-fox-trail-species.html
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.
1903 shares

Feedback to editors

User comments

Jun 19, 2019
Cute cat.

Jun 19, 2019
The article does not support the title, which suggests that this could be a new species. These are basically feral cats, descended from domestic cats brought to Corsica by humans 8,000 years ago. At the most this could be considered a sub-species, in order to stoke Corsican pride.

But this gene-pool of cats might be scientifically interesting if it can be shown that these cats have been genetically isolated for 8,000 years.

Jun 19, 2019
of course isolation is a known pathway to speciation,

Jun 24, 2019
Funny, no mention of DNA testing to show cat-fox crossbreed as the article seems to imply.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more