British big cats: how good, or bad, is the evidence?
The motto for my blog posts may become ‘better late than never’, as I planned to write the following some weeks ago. I don’t really have time to do it, but seeing as I feel good about getting some ‘work’ finished (my review of Tidwell & Carpenter’s Thunder-Lizards volume) I may as well get it over and done with. Plus I don’t feel like doing any more proper work anyway. More on the systematics and historical taxonomy of obscure British dinosaurs? Ugh. More on that in future here, anyway.
On Tuesday 7th of this month I gave my British big cats talk to the Southampton Natural History Society. It was entitled ‘British big cats: how good is the evidence?’, and it went well (which is a good job, as I’m giving the same talk again on March 5th, this time at the Hawthorns Study Centre on Southampton Common). Before I get down to business on the subject of alien big cats (as they’re known: ABCs from hereon), let me say that if you’re interested in natural history, do yourself a favour and join your local natural history society. After planning it for about 10 years, I finally did this a couple of years ago, and it is one of the most rewarding things I’ve done. Granted, over 70% of my fellow members are over 65 years old, but I get a lot out of the indoor meetings, and enjoy the field meetings (when I can attend them). Moving on…
As someone trying to gain a reputation as a credible scientist, it is not in my interest to declare my fascination with ABCs and related subjects. This is generally regarded, especially in academic circles, as a crackpot area inhabited only by the lunatic fringe. Unfortunately this stigma – accentuated by the half-serious, sensationalised way the subject is treated by journalists – has tarnished what is actually a perfectly sensible area for which good scientific data exists. When analysed by qualified scientists (whether they be field ecologists, laboratory-based specialists, or image analysts, or whatever), the results have been mostly positive. I start my talks on this subject by emphasizing that I do not ‘believe’ in ABCs (meaning that I do not accept their reality without question, as this is what is meant by the term ‘believe’ – see Arment (2004) for more on that if you’re interested). Furthermore, I have tried my best to maintain an appropriately sceptical approach. Like any scientist approaching a problem, I have come to the conclusions that I have because that is where the evidence has led me.
And having become acquainted with the large amount of data, I have a dilemma. On the one hand I feel that the data is so compelling that we should accept ABC reality without question, and proceed with the realisation that ABCs are undoubtedly genuine. But on the other hand I feel that more, and better, evidence is required for us to be so confident. Let me make this clear: the evidence is outstanding, and none of the doubts expressed about this subject have any standing. It’s often said that, if ABCs are real, then why don’t we have good photos, why don’t we have dead bodies, why don’t we have captured live animals, and why don’t we have definitive track and sign evidence? Well, the news is that we do have good photos, we do have dead bodies, we do have captured live animals, and we do have definitive track and sign evidence. This data is out there for anyone that’s prepared to examine it. Why isn’t this more widely known? That’s the mystery. The negative stigma attached to the subject seems to mean that the good data doesn’t really get out, at least to those people who haven’t gone to the trouble of immersing themselves in the subject.
Before I continue I should add that Britain only has, officially, two native felids: Scottish wildcats F. silvestris and Kellas cats. There is considerable disagreement as to whether the former should be kept as a distinct species: if Scottish wildcats are conspecific with the domestic cat F. catus, then African wild cats F. lybica and Indian desert cats F. ornata should be too – they’re even closer to F. catus, and indeed F. lybica is probably ancestral to domestics. Indeed it is even doubted by some as to whether purebred wildcats exist in Britain anymore. Others, however, regard it as useful to keep F. silvestris as distinct (see French et al. 1988, Daniels et al. 1998, Kitchener 1998, Reig et al. 2001, Pierpaoli et al. 2003). Kellas cats, only discovered in 1984, are introgressive domestic cat x wildcat hybrids that appear to be evolving their own unique behaviour and morphology and, by inference, into a new species (Shuker 1990).
On to the ABC evidence itself, firstly, there are hairs, tracks and droppings that have been conclusively identified by experts as having come from non-native felids. Cat hairs recovered from a site in Lincolnshire in 2003 were confirmed by a government-accredited laboratory as having come from a member of the genus Panthera. Droppings collected in 1993 from Whorlton, County Durham, were identified by Hans Kruuk as from a Puma Puma concolor. This is a big deal because Kruuk is a world authority on the field biology and ecology of carnivorans, and he’s otherwise been openly sceptical of the existence of ABCs. Finally, a large number of trackways from various locations across the UK seem to be big cat tracks. That is, they possess the diagnostic features seen in cat tracks, but not in those of dogs and other carnivorans. It is, however, admittedly difficult to be really sure on tracks, and many of the alleged ABC tracks that I’ve seen – while probably produced by cats – leave room for doubt.
It is well known that huge number of livestock kills have been blamed on ABCs. It’s often said that the way an animal has been killed – the apparent ‘neatness’ of the wound and resulting feeding sign, and the fact that the animal seems to have been killed by an attack to the throat – is indicative of a big cat as killer. This might be valid, but it’s very difficult to be confident about, so I hesitate in regarding livestock kills as that informative. There is, however, one specific case that stands out head and shoulders above the others: the Cupar roe deer carcass. There is so much that could be said about this case that I can’t cover it here (go here for more info). There is no doubt in my mind that this animal was killed by a big cat, and it was found (by Ralph Barnett, a journalist with no prior interest in the ABC phenomenon) on a small country road in Scotland.
Similarly compelling are dead bodies. Yes, dead bodies of British ABCs. Multiple specimens are now known from the UK, and they show that several species of exotic felids are (at least at times) abroad in the British countryside. They include several Jungle cats Felis chaus, five Leopard cats Prionailurus bengalensis, and a Eurasian lynx Lynx lynx, shot dead in East Sussex in 1991 (Shuker 1995). The lynx is particularly interesting as the case was pretty much kept quiet until 2001. I don’t hold much faith in conspiracy theories, but the farmer who shot this animal was told by the police to keep it to himself. In fact it’s not difficult to think that, if any official body (say, the police, or the government) does know that ABCs are an undoubted reality, they will likely not want this to become widely known. Two live exotic felids have been captured in Britain: a puma called Felicity, and a lynx called Lara. Both animals have been regarded as escapees from private collections, but this is missing the point given that surely all British ABCs are escapees from private collections (read on).
Finally, an increasing number of still photos and sequences of video footage are definitive and clearly show British ABCs. They also depict assorted species. An excellent photo taken by Peter Nixon at County Durham in 1992 clearly shows a Jungle cat, a black leopard was photographed a few times as it ran across a hillside at Tonmawr, Wales, by Di Francis in 1982, and a large cat that is either a puma or black leopard was photographed in November 1988 by Tim Young at Zennor, Cornwall (this photo is on the cover of Nigel Brierley’s They Stalk By Night). My favourite images come from a short sequence of video footage filmed at Great Witley, Worcestershire, by Nick Morris in May 1992 (a still from this sequence is shown above). The animal is a black leopard (though this is only really clear when the original colour footage is viewed). There are other bits of excellent, definitive photographic evidence – those I’ve mentioned are my favourite ones.
So what does all this mean? The conclusion is that the evidence for the presence of exotic felids in the British countryside is overwhelmingly good, and it can’t seriously be doubted that the animals are here. The Cupar roe deer carcass, definitive hairs, droppings, outstanding photographic data, and dead bodies and captured animals, provide compelling data for the contention that ABCs are real. Notable efforts to find evidence that resulted in negative conclusions (Baker & Wilson 1995, Weidensaul 2002) did so because, I think, they didn’t look at enough data. This was particularly obvious in the case of Baker & Wilson’s study (produced for the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food) – they only looked at four pieces of photographic data, for example, and had a total budget for their study of £8200 (Moiser 2001). Exotic cats of several species are here, and in fact the term ABC is a misnomer, as a significant percentage of the animals are not big cats in the strict sense of the word, but members of various small cat lineages. I assume that, because these cats are rather larger than domestic cats, they are therefore assumed to be ‘big cats’. That goes even for Jungle cats, which are about a third bigger than a domestic moggie, but no where near the size of a puma or leopard.
The great mystery I suppose is why these cats are here. They are not natives, and even though we now know that lynxes were here until about 1000 years ago, it is implausible that mammals this large could remain undetected in such small, crowded islands. They are escapees from collections, or animals that have been deliberately introduced. Can an exotic felid survive in the British countryside? Yes, without doubt. In fact a Clouded leopard Neofelis nebulosus that escaped from Howletts Zoo in 1975 survived for nine months in the wild until it was shot, and it was healthy and in good condition. Yet this is one of the most specialised, tropical cats of them all.
I could go on but I need to stop there. Comments are welcome, and further points relative to this subject will be covered in future posts. And to those of you reading this that live in my area, do come along to my next talk and see the data for yourselves.
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Refs - -
Arment, C. 2004. Cryptozoology: Science & Speculation. Coachwhip Publications (Landisville, Pennsylvania), pp. 393.
Baker, S. J. & Wilson, C. J. 1995. The evidence for the presence of large exotic cats in the Bodmin area and their possible impact on livestock. ADAS, Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food, pp. 16.
Daniels, M. J., Balharry, D., Hirst, D., Kitchener, A. C. & Aspinall, R. J. 1998. Morphological and pelage characteristics of wild living cats in Scotland: implications for defining the ‘wildcat’. Journal of Zoology 244, 231-247.
French, D. D., Corbett, L. K. & Easterbee, N. 1988. Morphological discriminants of Scottish wildcats (Felis silvestris), domestic cats (F. catus) and their hybrids. Journal of Zoology 214, 235-259.
Kitchener, A. C. 1998. The Scottish wildcat – a cat with an identity crisis? British Wildlife 9, 232-242.
Moiser, C. 2001. Mystery Cats of Devon and Cornwall. Bossiney Books (Launceston).
Pierpaoli, M., Birò, Z. S., Herrman, M., Hupe, K., Fernandes, M., Ragni, B., Szemethy, L. & Randi, E. 2003. Genetic distinction of wildcat (Felis silvestris) populations in Europe, and hybridisation with domestic cats in Hungary. Molecular Ecology 12, 2585-2598.
Reig, S., Daniels, M. J. & Macdonald, D. W. 2001. Craniometric differentiation within wild-living cats in Scotland using 3D morphometrics. Journal of Zoology 253, 121-132.
Shuker, K. P. N. 1990. The Kellas cat: reviewing an enigma. Cryptozoology 9, 26-40.
- . 1995. British mystery cats – the bodies of evidence. Fortean Studies 2, 143-152.
Weidensaul, S. 2002. The Ghost With Trembling Wings. North Point Press (New York), pp. 341.