State / In Arunachal, the golden cat wears new colours

The Hindu : Jun 14, 2019, 10:16 AM

Golden is no longer the only colour the elusive Asiatic golden cat can be associated with. Its coat comes in five other shades in Arunachal Pradesh, scientists have discovered.

The Asiatic golden cat (Catopuma temminckii) is listed as near threatened on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of threatened species. It is found across eastern Nepal through north-eastern India to Indonesia.

Bhutan and China were known to have two morphs of the golden cat — one the colour of cinnamon and the other with markings similar to the ocelot, a small wild cat found in the Americas.

Indian scientists from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), an international conservation charity, and University College London (UCL) have discovered six colour morphs of the golden cat in Dibang Valley of Arunachal Pradesh. The findings have contributed to an evolutionary puzzle because no other place on earth has so many colours of wild cats of the same species.

The study, published in the June edition of Ecology, the Ecological Society of America’s journal, aims to uncover a “greater understanding of human-wildlife interactions” in the region. “But we ended up discovering a group of entirely different-looking animals on camera traps with an inkling they were of the same species,” said Sahil Nijhawan, who led the field study for two years with local collaborators Iho Mitapo and Jibi Pulu from the Idu Mishmi tribe.

Mr. Nijhawan is an India-based scholar and British Academy Fellow at ZSL’s Institute of Zoology and UCL.

The Idu Mishmis, he said, were aware of the different shades of the golden cat. The community believes that the cat, particularly its melanistic (dark pigmentation as opposed to albinism) morph, possesses great powers and thus observe a strict taboo on hunting the cat.

Within the six colour morphs recorded, an entirely new colour morph was also found in one of the community-owned forests. The “tightly-rosetted” morph named after the leopard-like rosettes on the coat, now sits alongside cinnamon, melanistic, gray, golden, and ocelot types.

Camouflage benefits

ZSL scientists believe that the wide variation displayed in the cat’s coats provides them with several ecological benefits such as occupying different habitats at different elevations — from wet tropical lowland forests to alpine scrubs — and providing camouflage while preying on pheasants and rabbits.

“Colour morphs are thought to arise from random genetic mutations and take hold in the population through natural selection. In this region, scientists suspect that the phenomenon is driven by competition with other big cats such as tigers and clouded leopards. Being melanistic in the misty mountains during nocturnal hunts, for example, may mean they are better concealed from their prey; making them more efficient predators,” the ZSL said.

Mr. Nijhawan said: “We now know Dibang Valley hosts the world’s most diverse range of colour morphs of a wild cat species ever reported in one site, but we are only just starting to understand this rare ecological phenomenon. We need more studies that shed light on such unique adaptations and the benefits they provide to species, especially in a world where they must adapt quickly.”