Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The Newton Abbott Lynx.

Stories of Big Cats sighted, or sometimes killed or captured in the British countryside have been popular in the national press for a long time, and modern folklore often postulates the existence of a permanent population of such animals within the UK. Since the implementation of the 1976 Dangerous Wild Animals Act a number of large Felids have been captured, killed or found dead in the UK, though the majority of these were probably escaped animals that had spent little time in the wild (a large Cat accustomed to being fed by humans is likely to return to humans when it wants food, resulting in its death or capture after a very short period in the wild), and some have been shown to be deliberate hoaxes (for example a Leopard skull discovered in Devon in 1995 was found to have eggs from tropical Insects inside it, showing that it had arrived in the UK after its death).

In a paper published in the journal Historical Biology on 23 April 2013, Max Blake of the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences at Aberystwyth University, Darren Naish of the National Oceanography Centre at the University of Southampton, Greger Larson of Durham Evolution and Ancient DNA at the Department of Archaeology at Durham University, Charlotte King of the Department of Anthropology at Durham University, Geoff Nowell of the Department of Earth Sciences at Durham University, Manabu Sakamoto of the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol and Ross Barnett, also of Durham Evolution and Ancient DNA, discuss a preserved Lynx in the collection of Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, which was apparently shot by a farmer in Newton Abbot, south Devon, in 1903, after it killed two Dogs. Both the skeleton and the mounted skin of this animal are present in the collection.

The Newton Abbot Lynx as mounted in the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. Blake et al. (2013).

The identification of historic biological specimens in non-specialist museums is sometimes problematic, with both the origin and nature of such specimens sometimes recorded inaccurately. The Bristol Museum is generally considered to have good record-keeping, and is unlikely to have mixed up a UK specimen with one from overseas, though Blake et al. note that they were unable to find any record of a Lynx being shot in 1903 in the press of the day.

The specimen is clearly a Lynx, though no attempt to identify it to species level has apparently been previously made. There are four species of extant Lynx currently recognized, the Eurasian Lynx, Lynx lynx, the Iberian Lynx, Lynx pardinus, the Canadian Lynx, Lynx canadensis, and the Bobcat, Lynx rufus; of these only the Eurasian Lynx has ever been native to the British Isles. The Eurasian Lynx was formerly believed to have become extinct in the UK at the end of the Pleistocene, though it is now recognized that it probably survived as late as the third century AD in parts of England and the fifth century in Scotland, though a population of native Eurasian Lynxes surviving as late as the early twentieth century in southwest England is, at best, highly unlikely.

The mounted skin was apparently not preserved with aiding later taxonomists in mind (it is unlikely that a taxidermist in southwest England in the early twentieth century had seen a Lynx previously, making accurate preservation of identifying features difficult), though it appears unlikely to be either a Eurasian or Iberian Lynx. An attempt to use DNA analysis to identify the specimen proved unsuccessful, the (unknown) preservation method used having apparently destroyed all DNA in the skin. However a morphometric analysis of the skull (comparison of different measurements of the skull, a powerful tool for species identification) strongly supports the identification of the specimen as a Canadian Lynx rather than a Bobcat.

The skull of the Newton Abbot Lynx in (A) right lateral and (B) anterior view. Blake et al. (2013).

Next Blake et al. attempted to carry out a strontium isotope ratio analysis of the bones of the Lynx to determine where it had lived when alive. Strontium is found at low levels in almost all geological formations, from where it leaches into water, and is incorporated into bones and teeth by animals. Since different geological formations have different ratios of the two main isotopes of strontium (⁸⁶Sr and ⁸⁷Sr), it is often possible to determine where an animal lived when it was alive by analysing the ratios of these two isotopes. In this instance it was possible to rule out eastern Canada as the home of the living Lynx, as the rocks of the ancient Precambrian Shield have a much higher ⁸⁷Sr content than seen in the bones of the Lynx, but it was not possible to rule out either western Canada or south Devon as its home when alive. 

Finally Blake et al. examined the teeth of the specimen. The animal had lost its incisors, and the incisive alveoli were overgrown by fresh bone. The remaining teeth of the animal show extensive calculus (dental plaque) build-up, to the extent that several of the molars are completely overgrown suggesting that the animal had been afflicted by periodontal disease. This is unusual in wild Felids, but common in Domestic Cats and also well documented in other Carnivores kept in captivity and fed on a soft or wet diet (i.e. a diet lacking in abrasive surfaces, such as bone, which scrape clean the surface of the teeth – domestic Dogs often protect themselves from this by chewing other hard objects, such as sticks, to clean their teeth, but Cats have no such instinct). From this Blake et al. conclude that the Lynx was about 10-11 years old at the time of its death, and that it had been kept in captivity and fed a non-abrasive diet for much of its life. 

Lateral view of P3–P4 in the Newton Abbot Lynx showing build-up of dental calculus. Scale bar is 10 mm. Blake et al. (2013).

This suggests that the Newton Abbot Lynx has escaped from captivity, rather than being a truly wild animal able to survive in the Devon countryside. The incidents with the Dogs and then the fatal encounter with a farmer suggest that it was trying to obtain food from Humans, probably the only food source with which it was familiar.

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