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Scientists Identify Cryptic New Species of Tiger Cat


In 2013, the oncilla (Leopardus tigrinus), a species of small spotted cat from the Americas, was split into two species: the northern tiger cat (Leopardus tigrinus) and the southern tiger cat (Leopardus guttulus). New research led by the Universidade Estadual do Maranhão shows that the oncilla is in fact three separate species.

The clouded tiger cat (Leopardus pardinoides). Image credit: Johannes Pfleiderer.

The clouded tiger cat (Leopardus pardinoides). Image credit: Johannes Pfleiderer.

Oncillas are wild, housecat-sized felids native to montane and tropical rainforests of Costa Rica, Brazil and Argentina.

Also known as tiger cats, these creatures resemble margays (Leopardus wiedii) and ocelots (Leopardus pardalis), but they are smaller, with a slender build and narrower muzzle.

They weight as little as 1.5 kg, and usually do not exceed 3 kg with males slightly larger than females. Their body length can be anywhere between 35 to 60 cm, with a height of about 25 cm.

Oncillas have a yellowish-ochre background pelage predominantly patterned with open rosettes.

They eat small mammals, lizards, birds, eggs, invertebrates, and occasionally tree frogs.

They generally live for 10 to 14 years in the wild, and although they have been known to live for up to 23 years in captivity.

They are threatened by habitat loss for cattle ranching, agriculture and local trade for pets.

“The tiger cat species complex, the original species from old taxonomic schemes, is one of the most intriguing, enigmatic, and fascinating group of felids,” said Universidade Estadual do Maranhão researcher Tadeu de Oliveira and colleagues.

“Owing to the limited knowledge available, the tiger cat, before and after the species split, has long been the subject of several preconceptions regarding where it ranges and the associated habitats. These include its presence in the Amazon Basin and in the Pantanal.”

“As it stands today, the tiger cat species complex is currently composed of two species: Leopardus tigrinus and Leopardus guttulus, with the former is further divided into three subspecies: Leopardus tigrinus oncilla, Leopardus tigrinus pardinoides, and Leopardus tigrinus tigrinus,” they added.

Leopardus tigrinus and Leopardus guttulus are both currently defined as globally threatened species.”

“They inhabit some of the most threatened ecoregions and biodiversity hotspots in the Americas, including the Cerrado, Tropical Andes, Atlantic Forest, and the Talamanca mountain range.”

“With the exception of Leopardus tigrinus tigrinus, there are no published conservation priority areas for the entities in the complex.”

“Given their threatened status and the high rates of habitat loss within their respective ranges, it is imperative to identify the areas that are more likely to harbor viable populations of these species.”

Classic examples of the tiger cat species complex: (a) the savanna tiger cat (Leopardus tigrinus); (b) the clouded tiger cat (Leopardus pardinoides); and (c) the Atlantic Forest tiger cat (Leopardus guttulus). Image credit: Ricardo Ribeiro / Johannes Pfleiderer / de Oliveira et al., doi: 10.1038/s41598-024-52379-8.

Classic examples of the tiger cat species complex: (a) the savanna tiger cat (Leopardus tigrinus); (b) the clouded tiger cat (Leopardus pardinoides); and (c) the Atlantic Forest tiger cat (Leopardus guttulus). Image credit: Ricardo Ribeiro / Johannes Pfleiderer / de Oliveira et al., doi: 10.1038/s41598-024-52379-8.

In their research, the authors sought to determine the actual distribution range of the tiger cat species and subspecies, compare their characteristics, and assess the similarities and differences among them.

Ultimately, they aimed to characterize the tiger cats to determine the actual number of species.

“Our results reveal the existence of a cryptic species, the clouded tiger cat (Leopardus pardinoides), which includes both Leopardus tigrinus oncilla and Leopardus tigrinus pardinoides,” they said.

According to the team, Leopardus pardinoides is a long-tailed cat with short-round ears, weighing 2.27 kg.

The new species has a remarkably margay-looking head, which has a nice dense soft fur of a rich reddish/orangish/grayish-yellow background color adorned with irregularly shaped medium-large ‘cloudy’ rosettes that are strongly marked and often coalesce.

Distinctively, Leopardus pardinoides has only one pair of mammae/teats.

The species is found in the vanishing cloud forests of the southern Central American and Andean ranges at typically above 1,500 m above seal level, but especially between 2,000 and 3,000 m, in a sub-tropical/temperate climate with mild temperatures and very abundant rainfall, typically in areas where ocelot numbers are low or absent.

Leopardus pardinoides ranges along 11 mountain ecoregions,” the researchers said.

“In Central America, it is restricted to the Tilarán, Central Volcanic, and Talamanca cordilleras of Costa Rica and Panama (the Talamancan montane forests ecoregion) and the eastern Panamanian montane forests.”

“The lowland rainforest and swamps of the Atrato river basin in the Chocó-Darién ecoregion is the primary barrier between the eastern Panamanian and Andean populations of the clouded tiger cat, while to the north, the species is limited by the Isthmian-Atlantic rainforest.”

“In South America, the range extends from the Venezuelan Andean forests through the eastern, central, and western cordilleras of Colombia, into Ecuador, all the way through the Peruvian, Bolivian, and Southern Andean Yungas forests ecoregions, and ends in northwest Argentina.”

“The core area of its distribution lies in Colombia, but extends into Ecuador.”

The team’s results appear in the journal Scientific Reports.

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T.G de Oliveira et al. 2024. Ecological modeling, biogeography, and phenotypic analyses setting the tiger cats’ hyperdimensional niches reveal a new species. Sci Rep 14, 2395; doi: 10.1038/s41598-024-52379-8



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