“Currently, 11 felid species are identified in Latin America,” said Pontificia Universidad Javeriana researcher Manuel Ruiz-García and his colleagues.
“Eight of them form a monophyletic group named the ocelot lineage.”
“This lineage includes the ocelot (Leopardus pardalis), the margay (Leopardus wiedii), the Andean cat (Leopardus jacobita), the Pampas or colocolo cat (Leopardus colocola), the kodkod (Leopardus guigna), the Geoffroy’s cat (Leopardus geoffroyi), the oncilla or tigrina (Leopardus tigrinus), and the recently differentiated southern tigrina (Leopardus guttulus).”
“During a molecular study to resolve these complex relationships among different populations of Leopardus tigrinus, we found a felid skin from the Nariño Department in southern Andean Colombia,” they said.
“This skin (no skull nor bones were obtained) was dried in the sun with no chemical tanning or other preservation.”
The unique skin specimen of Leopardus narinensis (common name is the Nariño cat) was collected in 1989 on the Galeras Volcano (3,100 m above sea level) in Nariño Department, southern Colombia, and donated to the mammalian collection of the Instituto Alexander von Humboldt.
“The skin has interesting characteristics. From a global perspective, this exemplar belongs to the tigrina morphotype I,” the researchers said.
“It has rosettes in oblique chains, yet these rosettes have fuzzy edges. The ground coloration is tawny-orange, but the dorsal crest is of a darker orange-brownish color. The tail is relatively short and is completely ringed, bearing seven complete rings and a black tip.”
“However, this skin also has unique, diagnostic features. Its ground coloration is more reddish than in other Leopardus tigrinus phenotypes. Most of the rosettes are bordered by black rims, but the rosettes’ interiors have a much more intense reddish color than that of other Leopardus tigrinus specimens.”
“Compared to other Leopardus tigrinus exemplars, the top of the cat’s head and its dorsal crest are much darker. Its coat is denser and woollier. The head is rounder and wider, and the face is flatter. The body is short and relatively more robust than in other Leopardus tigrinus taxa.”
The authors also molecularly analyzed the skin of Leopardus narinensis and compared it with all the Leopardus species recognized today.
“Although originally classified as Leopardus tigrinus, its distinctiveness merits a new taxonomic designation,” the scientists said.
“The skin is distinct from all known Leopardus tigrinus holotypes as well as from other Leopardus species.”
“The analysis of the complete mitochondrial genomes from 44 felid specimens, the mtND5 gene from 84 felid specimens, and six nuclear DNA microsatellites indicate that this specimen does not belong to any previously recognized Leopardus taxon.”
“The temporal split between the ancestor of this new possible species and the most recent ancestor within Leopardus was dated to 1.2-1.9 million years ago.”
According to the team, the body length (including head) of Leopardus narinensis is around 46 cm; the tail is 28 cm long.
“This new taxon is absent in the Latin American museums that we revised (in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay),” the researchers said.
“In the wild, this taxon has not been recorded. Camera traps — since 2018 until now — in southern Colombia and northern Ecuador have yet to record the animal.”
“This new taxon may be near-extinct or totally extinct. Henceforth, the specimen that we analyzed should be one of the last living exemplars of this taxon.”
“The following steps are needed to validate the existence of this new small spotted cat in the Neotropics,” they added.
“First, confirm that the taxon is not extinct and that there are still living individuals.”
“Second, locate additional skins and skulls similar to the Nariño cat in collections or museums. The publication of this new taxon may create awareness to help discover new specimens to test the hypothesis raised here.”
“Third, Illumina dye generation sequencing, 454 Life Sciences pyrosequencing, Pac-Bio, or Oxford Nanopore may determine the characteristics of the nuclear genome of both the Nariño cat and of all the tigrina taxa.”
“These analyses would help us to determine the degree of hybridization of these small spotted cats with each other, as well as the degree of hybridization with other morphologically differentiated and well-recognized species of the Leopardus genus.”
The findings were published in the journal Genes.
Manuel Ruiz-García et al. 2023. Morphological and Genetics Support for a Hitherto Undescribed Spotted Cat Species (Genus Leopardus; Felidae, Carnivora) from the Southern Colombian Andes. Genes 14 (6): 1266; doi: 10.3390/genes14061266
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This article by Natali Anderson was first published by Sci-News on 7 August 2023. Lead Image: The tigrina or oncilla (Leopardus tigrinus). Image credit: Groumfy69 / CC BY-SA 3.0.