Leopard Cats of the genus Leopardus are small Felids found in Central and South America. There are at least seven species, all thought to be descended from a single population that migrated from North America during the Great American Biotic Interchange that followed the closure of the Panama Seaway in the Late Pliocene, allowing the migration of terrestrial animals between North and South America. As small, largely nocturnal Cats that live principally in dense forests, these Felids are not well understood.
In a paper published in the journal Current Biology on 16 December 2013, a team of scientists led by Tatiane Trigo of the Departamento de Genética at the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul describe the discovery of a new species of Leopard Cat.
Trigo et al. were carrying out a genetic study of the populations of the Tigrina (Leopardus tigrinus), Geoffroy’s Cat (Leopardus geoffroyi), and the Pampas Cat (Leopardus colocolo), in order to discover the extent of hybridisation between these three relatively young species. As they were doing this it became apparent that the Tigrina population was divided into two discrete populations, which did not interbreed with one-another.
Species which resemble one-another very closely and which can only be determined by genetic analysis or detailed inspection of the anatomy (usually post-mortem) are known as cryptic species. In recent years it has become apparent that many species formerly thought to be widespread are in fact several different cryptic species, which often has profound implications for the conservation of the species in question, as the new species tend to have smaller population sizes and more limited ranges than the original species.
The new species is named by Trigo et al. as Leopardus guttulus, the Southern Tigrina, comprising the more southerly of two populations formerly assigned to the Tigrina (Leopardus tigrinus) in Brazil, although they do not provide an explanation for this name or give a formal description of the species (which can lead to names being challenged – taxonomy can be both legalistic and highly competitive).
Camera-trap photographs of wild individuals illustrating (A) the Southern Tigrina, Leopardus guttulus, and (B) the Northern Tigrina, Leopardus tigrinus.Trigo et al. (2013).
The Southern Tigrina is described as being on average slightly darker and having slightly larger spots than the Northern Tigrina, though both species are variable, and cannot be reliably distinguished visually. They do appear to inhabit slightly different ecosystems, with the northern species favouring the open woodlands and grasslands of the Cerrado and Caatinga, while the southern species is found in the Brazilian Atlantic rainforests, however the two species are found together in the middle part of their range, suggesting that this ecological separation is not absolute either.
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