Cats are stealthy, but this kind is a pro -- it's been hiding in plain sight for years. A whole new species of Brazilian feline has been discovered after scientists analyzed the DNA of several different wild cat populations.
The findings, published in Current Biology, highlight the need for careful conservation efforts. After all, it's hard to protect a potentially endangered species if scientists don't yet know it exists.
Brazilian scientists studied several different populations of very distinct wild Neotropical cat: the pampas cat (Leopardus colocolo), Geoffroy's cat (L. geoffroyi) and the tigrina (L. tigrinus), a roughly house-cat-sized feline. The tigrina is one of the smallest, with yellowish fur and open spots. Geoffroy's cat is a larger, stockier cat that often has a more grayish coat with its solid spots. The pampas cat doesn't have spots on its body but does have stripes on its limbs and sports a shorter tail.
A genetic analysis revealed a strange pattern of interbreeding happening between the three. In the northeast, the analysis showed signs that at least a few tigrinas and pampas cats had mixed lineages long ago. But the southern tigrinas were still getting busy with Geoffroy's cats, showing that two different species were creating hybrids.
But here was the really strange part: Even though the southern tigrinas were interbreeding with the local cats in their area and the northern tigrinas had done so in the past, the southern and northeastern tigrinas were not interbreeding with each other.
"L. tigrinus was clearly subdivided into two genetically distinct populations," the study authors wrote.
In fact, these two tigrina populations looked far more different on a genetic level than their appearance would indicate.
"Their level of genetic distinctiveness was similar to those found between different species, such as L. geoffroyi versus L. colocolo," the authors wrote, "and higher than that found between the L. tigrinus NE population and L. geoffroyi for almost all markers."
The scientists concluded that the two tigrinas were really two different species -- possibly suited to different environments. The northeastern tigrinas live mostly in savannahs and other relatively dry spots, while their southern cousins live in denser, wetter forests.
The rarer northeastern species got to keep the name Leopardus tigrinus; the more common tigrina in the south was renamed Leopardus guttulus.
The finding, the researchers said, "stresses the urgency to investigate its biology, evolutionary history, and conservation status."
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