Oncilla or two?

Oncilla or two?

In catology news, scientists in Brazil have found a new species of cat with the remarkable ability to be the same as an existing species of cat.

The cat, known as an oncilla (from the Portuguese oncilla, “get off the cilla”) is a housecat-sized feline found throughout houses in South America.  They are also known as little tiger cats due to their distinctive lack of tiger stripes.  Mr. Mittens, the first known oncilla (pictured above) was found in a Rio de Janiero backyard, using clues posted on a series of telephone poles near the Rio Village Mall.

While closely related, the differences between the two species are astonishing. The new species (named Leopardus guttulus from the Latin “tiger cat that got named for Leo Guttulus because he won our drawing”), looks virtually identical to southern oncillas, unlike the southern oncilla (Leopardus tigrina or “we’ll decide later if it’s a leopard or a tiger”) . The tigrina lives in rainforests and savannahs on a diet of small birds and rodents, and dwells on the ground, though they are agile tree climbers. The guttulus, on the other hand, lives in on the ground in savannahs and rainforests, and survives on a diet of small avian life and rats.  Where the new species has yellow-ochre fur with black rosettes (like a leopard), the older species has yellowish-brown fur with black spots (like a cheetah).

(Disclaimer: the deep southern oncilla lives in a Rainforest Cafe in Savannah, Georgia, and subsists almost entirely on a diet of Raging Thunder Buffalo Wings and coconut shrimp.)

Study of the genetic differences between the new oncilla and old oncillas found no flow of genes between the breeds, as well as some genetic differences, which suggests that they are different species. These criteria — different genetic material which is not exchanged — are the same ones used in 2007 to prove that Angelina Jolie and Wilford Brimley are different species.

The study “illustrates how much is still unknown about the natural world,” according to co-author Eduardo Eizirik. “In fact, there are many basic aspects we still don’t know about wild cats”, such as geographic distribution, diet, and how to tell apart different species.

“These gaps in knowledge provide ample opportunities for biologists to grab a microscope and a cat off the street and invent a new species, secure in the knowledge that it’s really expensive to prove us wrong. Not that we did that, of course.”

Eizirik’s team* from the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul expressed an urgent need to learn more about his discovery, including its rarity, need for conservation, and its ability to attract the additional grant money necessary to invent discover new species of oncilla.

* The cat researchers, not the PCUoRGdS Little Tigers (7-4).

(Click on the cute little kitty cat to read the original story.)

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