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Scientists discover new tigrina wild cat species in Brazil

By Jessica Zuzierla     Nov 29, 2013 in Science
During a study of three wild cat species descendant from the genus Leopardus living in Central and South America, scientists accidentally found that the northeastern and southeastern Tigrinas are different species – not different populations.
According to a National Geographic report citing a study from Current Biology, scientists have discovered a new species of wildcat in Brazil, and entirely by accident.
During their study of evolving wildcat bloodlines descendant from the genus Leopardus living in South America, scientists realized that there are two tigrina species, not just one species with two populations as they previously thought.
Study of wildcat bloodlines and hybridization
The study titledMolecular Data Reveal Complex Hybridization and a Cryptic Species of Neotropical Wild Cat,” focused on studying three species from the genus Leopardus including the Pampas (Leopardus colocolo), Geoffroy’s cat (Leopardus geoffroyi), and the northeastern and southern populations of Tigrina (Leopardus tigrinus).
The study focused specifically on the bloodlines in the hopes of figuring out exactly how the genus Leopardus evolved into what they thought was three distinct species of the seven that currently live in South America today. Scientists originally believed that only one species of tigrina – commonly called the oncilla, or the spotted cat – existed, with the northeastern and southeastern populations interbreeding and sharing a bloodline.
According to the report, researchers sampled the blood of what they thought were three species of genus Leopardus and tested certain genes that would indicate whether any of the species had interbred with the others. For you science buffs out there, the study specifically tested:
“Sequence variation in the mtDNA ND5 gene (567 bp), two X-linked introns (PLP1 [808 bp] and BTK [550 bp]), and two Y-linked introns (ZFY[399 bp] and SMCY3 [425 bp]), along with ten autosomal microsatellite loci.”
It was during testing of these specific genes from the tigrina populations that researchers realized that neither shared enough DNA markers or genes indicative of hybridization or other inbreeding between the two populations.
Four distinct Leopardus species
The study’s lead author Eduardo Eizrik from Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, said to Science Daily that:
“So much is still unknown about the natural world, even in groups that are supposed to be well-characterized, such as cats … there are many basic aspects that we still don’t know about wild cats.”
After the discovery, researchers noted that because the tigrina populations don’t share genes and other DNA markers, they should be formally recognized as two species:
“The two seemingly continuous Brazilian tigrina populations show no evidence of ongoing gene flow between them, leading us to support their formal recognition as distinct species, namely L. tigrinus in the northeast and L. guttulus in the south.”
The southeastern tigrina (Photo A) is the smallest of the little big cats, all of which are known as Neotropical cats, and has a yellow-brown coat with black rosette patterns, much like that of a leopard.
The northeastern tigrina (Photo B) appears much the same as the southeastern cat, but is just slightly lighter in color, according to Table S4 from the study.
The Geoffroy’s cat (Photo C,) has what appears to be a coat that can vary in color from grayish, to yellowish or brownish gold. The Geoffroy's cat always has small spots instead of the tigrina's rosettes or the Pampas' rarer stripes.
The Pampas cat (Photo D) is typically a single color and has stripes on its limbs instead of spots, though it can sometimes appear with a yellowish brown coat with black stripes, but this color combination is rarer. The Pampas also has a shorter tail and is long haired. You can see a photo of the rarer striped Pampas at the International Society of Endangered Cats.
Ancient and recent species hybridization
The study notes the two tigrina species have been two distinct species for at least 100,000 years, and estimate that the split could have happened anywhere from 500,000 to 800,000 years ago.
The DNA study of the wild cats found that before the Pampas and northeastern tigrina cats evolved into two different species, they bred together. There is no evidence of current interbreeding of the two species.
On the other hand, the study also found that even though the Geoffroy’s cat and the southeastern Tigrina didn't interbreed previously, they have in the last few thousand years and do now, but only where their respective habitats overlap.
While this interbreeding has not yet affected the two distinct species because the mating goes no further than the habitat overlap area, if evolution has its way, the hybrid cats that result from the Geofroy’s and Tigrina matings could evolve into a species of their own over time.
Genus Leopardus conservation needed
The new findings mean there are eight distinct species of the genus Leopardus living in South America, all of which are endangered or vulnerable and facing extinction.
According to the International Society for Endangered Cats, a study “between 1976 and 1982 showed Oncillas to be one of the four most heavily exploited small cats,” in all of South America, hunted by fur traders.
The discovery of the distinct second tigrina species presents a bit of a problem for conservationists, though. According to Eizrik, researchers must study the northeastern tigrina even more “so that both species of Tigrina can be adequately protected.” This is because scientists know practically nothing about them in comparison with the southeastern species.
The tigrina populations split into two, automatically reducing the numbers of each species to half of what the one species numbers were when counted as a single species. Since the tigrina was already on the Red List as an endangered species, the split automatically makes both species even more vulnerable than previously thought.
Because conservationists must now split their protection efforts between each distinct species, they are now more vulnerable to extinction than ever before.
Read the full report on the study on Current Biology (PDF) in addition to the supplemental figures and tables here.
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