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Madagascar's forest cats

On the left: Madagascar forest cat (Julie Pomerantz and Luke Dollar). On the right: domestic tabby.

When anthropology professor Michelle Sauther started work in Madagascar she noticed large cats in the forest with characteristic tabby-like colouring. All of these cats looked much the same. They were large - about twice the size of normal domestic cats (the males were just over half a meter in length) and they were definitely wild cats. They preyed on native birds, snakes, rodents, and lemurs.

Ms Sauther knew that the cats had not evolved on the island, because Madagascar has long been separated from mainland Africa and has evolved its own unique fauna. No-one on the Island seemed to know where these cats had come from, yet there they were, roaming the forests and seeming very much at home.

Now, thirty years later, Sauther has finally solved the mystery. Working with a team of researchers she trapped a number of those cats and traced their origins through genetic analysis. More specifically, the team analysed the DNA from 30 forest cats from sites in the north and south of Madagascar. They discovered that these cats have the Felis catus genome, which means that their ancestors were domestic cats. But according to the latest research those first cats were not newcomers - in fact the forest cats have probably been on Madagascar for centuries.

The forebears of the Madagascan cats seem to have originated from lands around the Arabian Sea - modern-day Dubai, Oman and Kuwait. Traders from this region have sailed along the coast of Africa for over a thousand years, and it is probable that even the first of these early merchant ships carried cats. "They would come down along the East Coast of Africa. They would stop at the islands of Lamu and Pate, and then it's just barely a jump to go over to Madagascar," Sauther says.

Although we know that many 'wild cats' on different islands around the world were originally brought there by humans, the history of Madagascar's forest cats has been more of a puzzle partly because not many scientists were even aware that those cats existed.

Malagasy villagers though, are familiar with these large wild cats, which often sneak into their villages to eat their chickens. They call the cats "ampaha," "fitoaty" and "kary" among other names and distinguish them from the island's pet cat population.

The study unravelling the mystery of the elusive Madagascan forest cats has been recently published in Conservation Genetics. While the team can't say exactly when the cats arrived on their island home, Sauther and her colleagues think that they have been on the island so long that they may have become a normal part of the local forest ecology.

Journal Reference:
M. L. Sauther, F. Bertolini, L. J. Dollar, J. Pomerantz, P. C. Alves, B. Gandolfi, J. D. Kurushima, F. Mattucci, E. Randi, M. F. Rothschild, F. P. Cuozzo, R. S. Larsen, A. Moresco, L. A. Lyons, I. A. Youssouf Jacky. Taxonomic identification of Madagascarís free-ranging 'forest cats'. Conservation Genetics (2020) 21, pp. 443-451.

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