Cat lovers, rejoice: a new species of cat has been discovered.
The cat, which lives on the Mediterranean island of Corsica, has probably been there for as long as 8,500 years — but it’s only been since 2016 that researchers have been able to catch and study it.
And it’s no surprise.
The population of this particular breed is estimated to be about 16 — or at least, that’s how many researchers have counted. They’ve long been the source of popular legend among the residents of the island, who refer to the cats as “ghjattuvolpe”, or “cat fox.”
They tell tales of the cats wreaking havoc on farms, attacking the udders of farm animals at night. But it wasn’t until 2008 that anyone had a close encounter with one. When a cat got trapped in a chicken coop, locals were able to get a good look for the first time. And that was when researchers started expressing interest in the population, too.
What they saw was a wild cat slightly larger than the average domesticated cat.
It gets up to about 35 inches long, with doglike teeth, short whiskers, and wide-set eyes. Its name “cat fox” has nothing to do with foxes, but simply a reference to the size.
The cat also has an extremely dense coat, which protects it against insects like fleas and ticks. It’s perfectly suited to forest and field dwelling.
Researchers flocked to the island to see if they could trap a cat for study.
The ghjattuvolpe are extremely elusive, hunting by night and sleeping by day. However, they were able to collect some fur samples, making it possible to examine their DNA.
“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,” said ONCFS environmental technician Pierre Benedetti.
Finally, in 2016, they were able to temporarily trap one of the cats to study it.
Three years down the line, they have caught 12 cats and observed 16. Whenever a cat is caught, it’s fitted with a microchip before being released into the wild. This allows researchers to track it and observe its behavior.
But they were particularly interested in what they discovered from the DNA samples.
“By looking at its DNA, we could tell it apart from the European wildcat, Felis silvestris silvestris,” Benedetti said. “It’s close to the African forest cat, F. silvestris lybica, but its exact identity is still to be determined.”
In other words, it probably originated in the Middle East.
But scientists simply don’t know how the cat arrived on the French island of Corsica. Dating points to an arrival time are roughly on par with the second human colonization of the island.
Researchers are still learning about ghjattuvolpe. Some speculate it’s a totally new species, while others think it may be a hybrid. Either way, there’s still much to be learned about this elusive — but adorable — wild cat.
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