Caturday Felids

November 19, 2011 • 6:18 am

by Greg Mayer

Alert reader Dominic has sent me a link to EarthSky, which features camera trap photos of five species of cats from the island of Sumatra. The  photos, taken by WWF-Indonesia, are further discussed at the WWF site. Here’s one of my favorites, a marbled cat, who seems to have noticed the camera, and isn’t entirely pleased:

Sumatran marbled cat

This clouded leopard, doesn’t just look unpleased, it’s taking action:

Sumatran clouded leopard

The pictures were taken in an area threatened with deforestation, and WWF is urging that the area be protected. Interestingly, of 404 cat photos, 226 were of  tigers; the rarest, at 4, was the marbled cat. We’ve had occasion previously to note here at WEIT the great use being made of camera traps for the study of rare and hard-to-see cats. The other species photographed are the tiger, Asiatic golden cat, and leopard cat (species account links are from the IUCN Cat Specialist Group). Bravo to WWF-Indonesia!

Clouded leopards and the species problem

January 25, 2011 • 10:48 am

by Greg Mayer

Alert WEIT-blog reader Dominic has drawn my attention to a not yet published study of clouded leopards, that I’d seen mentioned by the BBC, but I had not seen the actual paper (well, actually, nobody has seen the actual paper— more below on this).

Clouded leopard by Vearl Brown, from Wikipedia.

There are two issues here, both of which we’ve considered before here at WEIT. First is the species concept issue, which both Jerry and I mentioned recently (links to Jerry’s posts in mine). The second is a scientific nomenclature issue, one that arose in the infamous Darwinius case.

The species concept issue also comes in two parts. First, are the mainland clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) and the insular clouded leopard (Neofelis diardi) distinct species? And, second, among the insular clouded leopards, are the Bornean and Sumatran populations distinct? The first issue was the focus of two papers in 2006 which raised the insular leopards to full species status. Normally, the raising of insular forms to full species status on the basis of being different from the mainland form raises a warning flag for me, but there is an additional consideration which I think in this case supports the raising to full species status. This is that the islands of Borneo and Sumatra are on the Sunda Shelf, and thus were connected to the mainland as recently as about 10,000 years ago (see Harold Voris’s superb series of paleo-bathymetric maps of the Sunda Shelf for details). So, the insular and mainland forms were in contact very recently, and one good explanation for why this contact would not have led to an erosion of the genetic differences between them is that they were reproductively isolated (i.e., different species). There are other possible interpretations, but the recent contact combined with observed differences certainly makes the 2-species taxonomy reasonable.

The new, unpublished, paper argues not for a new species, but for dividing the insular form into two subspecies, one from Borneo and one from Sumatra. (A subspecies is recognized when there is a particular pattern of geographic variation within a species, namely that there is a geographic segment of the species’ range within which individuals can be distinguished from individuals from other parts of the range. Basically, if you can tell where an individual is from by the way it looks, or, if you tell me where the individual is from, I can tell you what it looks like, then you can name a subspecies.) This seems perfectly reasonable to me.

The problem is that they describe a new subspecies in the paper (rather than reviving a previously described one), but they have also posted a pre-print online and allowed press coverage. Online posting does not constitute publication in the formal sense, and their paper will soon be published on paper. But by generating press coverage (the BBC has included the new name in its coverage) and posting online, they increase the chance that the name will be formally published before their paper appears in print, either accidentally, or on purpose by an unscrupulous individual wanting to steal credit for their work (it does happen). This was part of the problem with Darwinius: the name Darwinius was bandied about before the name was published.

The authors are actually compounding a problem they created for themselves earlier: they published the new name in 2007 (I have not seen this paper), but now consider their proposal at the time nomenclaturally defective, and the name not nomenclaturally available from that publication. (The technical term for what they now regard their 2007 effort is a nomen nudum: a nude name, i.e. a name without a proper description accompanying it, and thus not available for use as a scientific name). The nomenclature of this name could be confused. I hope their paper appears soon.

One thing highlighted by this paper that I want to unreservedly endorse is the use of camera traps for the study of elusive large mammals. These traps have helped with studies of a number of species, including several big cats: jaguars (including Arizona jaguars), Saharan cheetahs, Asiatic cheetahs, tigers, as well as clouded leopards. The BBC, NYT, and other media often highlight the results of these studies. Recently, camera traps revealed an unexpected high-altitude population of tigers in Bhutan, in a valley where three big cats– leopard, snow leopard, and tiger– all live together.

Buckley-Beason, V.A. et al. 2006. Molecular evidence for species-level distinctions in clouded leopards. Current Biology 16:2371-2376. (pdf)

Kitchener, A.C., M.A. Beaumont, and D. Richardson. 2006. Geographical variation in the clouded leopard, Neofelis nebulosa, reveals two species. Current Biology 16:2377-2383. (pdf)

Wilting, A., V.A. Buckley-Beason, H. Feldhaar, J. Gadau,  S.J. O’Brien, and K.E. Linsenmair. 2007. Clouded leopard phylogeny revisited: support for species recognition and population division between Borneo and Sumatra. Front. Zool. 4:15. (not seen)

Wilting, A., P. Christiansen, A.C. Kitchener, Y.J.M. Kemp, L. Ambu, and J.Fickel. 2011. Geographical variation in and evolutionary history of the Sunda clouded leopard (Neofelis diardi) (Mammalia: Carnivora: Felidae) with the description of a new subspecies from Borneo. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution in press. (pdf)

Caturday felids: a trifecta

July 18, 2009 • 6:37 am

On March 24 two clouded leopard cubs were born at the National Zoo’s annex in Front Royal, Virginia.  Clouded leopards (Neofelis nebulosa; there may be two species), from the forests of southeast Asia, have arguably the most beautiful coats of all wild felids.  They’re known for their long canine teeth and remarkable climbing abilities, but  their biology is not well known, and they’re hard to breed in captivity.

Good news department:  after a six-year absence, Allsort is home. (If you’ve been in Britain, and love candy like I do, you’ll know why the cat is called Allsort. His late brother was named “Werthers,” too.)  Note: in the UK an alley cat is called a “moggy.”


Fig. 1.  Amy Turnbull and Allsort after his big adventure.

Finally, the cat of a friend, Mr. Nesbitt.  Mr. Nesbitt, a 14-year-old moggy, has not been well, but may be on the mend. He looks pretty low in this picture.

As a rescue cat in the UK, he was given his name by the vet.  (“Mr. Nesbitt,” of course, sounds unusual because it’s a proper human name, and for some reason we usually don’t give usually give our pets human names like Fred, Sally, or Paul.)

Mr. Nisbett 134Fig. 2. Mr. Nesbitt, not feeling well