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The benefits of being different

June 12, 2019

Six different colour morphs of the elusive Asiatic golden cat have been discovered in Northeast India - with the findings being hailed as "an evolutionary puzzle" - as the world's greatest number of different coloured wild cat species in one area are reported.

The Indian scientists from international conservation charity ZSL (Zoological Society of London) and UCL discovered the colour morphs, during a wide-scale camera trapping study covering both community forests and protected areas across Dibang Valley, Northeast India.

The study, published on 7 June 2019 in the Ecological Society of America's journal, Ecology aimed to uncover a greater understanding of human-wildlife interactions in the region but discovered a group of entirely different-looking animals on their camera traps - with an inkling they were all the exact same species.

The finding is said to spark more questions than it answers. However, understanding how this remarkable phenomenon takes hold in a population, may help scientists grasp how quickly species can adapt and evolve to changing environments. This would advise scientists of the resilience of the species to climate change or habitat degradation and destruction.

Colour morphs are not classed as different subspecies as they may live in the same area and even interbreed. However, if differences in their behaviour prevented them from interbreeding - this could represent the beginning of the evolutionary process into separate subspecies. A more well-known example of a colour morph is the melanistic (dark coloured) morph (aka black panther) of the common leopard (Panthera pardus).

Within the six colour morphs recorded, an entirely new colour morph was also found in one of the community-owned forests. The now named "tightly-rosetted" morph after the leopard-like rosettes tightly spaced on their gray coat, now sits alongside the already known: cinnamon, melanistic, gray, golden, and ocelot (due to its ocelot-like markings) types.

ZSL scientists believe that the wide variation displayed in the cat's coats provides them with several ecological benefits. It enables them to occupy different habitats at different elevations - from wet tropical lowland forests to alpine scrubs - and provides camouflage while hunting different prey such as tropical pheasants or Himalayan pika (a small mountain-dwelling rabbit-like mammal).

Colour morphs are thought to arise from random genetic mutations and take hold in the population through natural selection. In this region, scientists suspect that the phenomenon is driven by competition with other big cats such as tigers (Panthera tigris) and clouded leopards (Neofelis nebulosa). Being melanistic in the misty mountains during nocturnal hunts, for example, may mean they are better concealed from their prey; making them more efficient predators.

Dr Sahil Nijhawan, the India-based lead author and British Academy Fellow at ZSL's Institute of Zoology and UCL said: "According to evolutionary theory, if a colour morph is not beneficial for a species survival - over time, it should die out in the population. The fact that we have so many different colour morphs persisting in Dibang Valley shows there must be some ecological advantages to the variety of colours.

"We now know Dibang Valley hosts the world's most diverse range of colour morphs of a wild cat species ever reported in one site, but we are only just starting to understand this rare ecological phenomenon. We need more studies that shed light on such unique adaptations and the benefits they provide to species, especially in a world where they must adapt quickly."
-end-
To find out more about ZSL's conservation research across Asia see here: https://www.zsl.org/conservation/regions/asia

Nijhawan, S., Mitapo, I., Pulu, J., Carbone, C., Rowcliffe, J. M. (2019) Does polymorphism make Asiatic golden cat the most adaptable predator in Eastern Himalayas? Ecology. https://esajournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ecy.2768

Notes to editors

Media contact


Emma Ackerley, emma.ackerley@zsl.org / +44 (0)20 7449 6288

Related images available here: https://zslondon.sharefile.com/d-s0fee0dd01c94cf8a

The Asiatic golden cat

The Asiatic golden cat (Catopuma temminckii) is listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and is found across eastern Nepal, through Northeast India, Myanmar, Thailand and China to Sumatra and Indonesia. However, this study represents the first reports of the ocelot and cinnamon morphs in India, as have only previously been found in Bhutan and China.

One of the most remarkable things about this landscape is that most of the species, including the golden occur in much high densities in community-owned forests. It is these poorly studied community forests that are under threat from development with plans to build more than 15 hydropower dams, which could potentially threaten the Asiatic golden cat and its habitat.

The local Idu Mishmi people of Dibang Valley believe that the golden cat, particularly darker melanistic morphs, is believed to possess great powers. They observe a strict taboo on hunting all felines including the golden cat.

ZSL (Zoological Society of London)

Founded in 1826, ZSL (Zoological Society of London) is an international scientific, conservation and educational charity whose mission is to promote and achieve the worldwide conservation of animals and their habitats. Our mission is realised through our ground-breaking science, our active conservation projects in more than 50 countries and our two Zoos, ZSL London Zoo and ZSL Whipsnade Zoo. For more information visit http://www.zsl.org

About UCL (University College London)

UCL was founded in 1826. We were the first English university established after Oxford and Cambridge, the first to open up university education to those previously excluded from it, and the first to provide systematic teaching of law, architecture and medicine.

We are among the world's top universities, as reflected by performance in a range of international rankings and tables. Our community of over 41,500 students from 150 countries and over 12,500 staff pursues academic excellence, breaks boundaries and makes a positive impact on real world problems.

http://www.ucl.ac.uk | Follow us on Twitter @uclnews | Watch our YouTube channel YouTube.com/UCLTV

Use of ZSL Images and Video

Photographs, video or graphics distributed by ZSL (Zoological Society of London) to support this media release may only be used for editorial reporting purposes for the contemporaneous illustration of events, things or the persons in the image or facts mentioned in the media release or image caption. Reuse of the picture or video requires further permission from the ZSL press office.

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