New Wild Cat Identified In Brazil: Tigrina Is Actually Two Different Species

By Ajit Jha on November 27, 2013 12:55 PM EST

Brazilian Wild Cats
(A) The Southeastern Brazilian tigrina (the new species), (B) The Northeastern Brazilian tigrina, (C) Geoffroy’s cat, and (D) pampas cat (Photo: Projeto Gatos do Mato – Brasil)

Researchers claim to have discovered a new species of wild cat in the Brazilian rainforest, in a study published in a recent issue of the journal Current Biology. The authors of the study call the cat a "cryptic" species, referring to how seemingly little we know and understand some of the wild cats found in the deep jungles of South America.

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"So much is still unknown about the natural world, even in groups that are supposed to be well-characterized, such as cats," the study's lead author, Eduardo Eizirik of Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil, told National Geographic.

The team was not looking for a new species initially - they were trying to understand the evolutionary history and genetic connection between three species of cat from the genus Leopardus: the tigrina (L.tigrinus), the Geoffroy's cat (L. geoffroyi) and the pampas cat (L. colocolo).

After taking DNA samples from 216 different Leopardus cats, Eizirik and his team discovered that there was almost certainly interbreeding between the pampas cat and northeastern populations of tigrina somewhere in the cats' histories. They also found that southern tigrina populations were interbreeding with the Geoffroy's cat - but only in specific regions where contact between the species was regular, which means that they remained distinct species. The researchers were able to easily trace these histories because mitochondrial DNA is passed down only from mother to child, making the lineage quite clear.

Surprisingly, however, the researchers could find no evidence that genes were moving between northeastern and southern tigrinas. "This observation implies that these tigrina populations are not interbreeding, which led us to recognize them as distinct species," Eizirik said. As a result, the study suggests that the two populations should be considered separate species. They recommend that the northeastern tigrina keep the name L. tigrinus, while the southern tigrina should be called L. guttulus. 

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