Australian BIG CATS

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BIG CATS An Unnatural History of PANTHERS

Michael Williams & Rebecca Lang Strange nation Publishing


NOTES Date: 5 June, 2005. Big Cat shot by Kert in country NSW (???) in thick bushland. Postmortum: Not taken. Photograph: Verified.


Big Cat Noire Types of Big Cats : Genus “Panthera”


o perhaps we should start by clearing up a common mistake - there is no actual animal known as a ‘panther’. The term ‘panther’ is given to all large black cats (although some dictionaries may claim it is an alternate name for a black leopard, it is also used to refer to jaguars and other

large melanistic cats). The name is derived from the word ‘Panthera’, which is the genus or scientific grouping of species that is the big cat family. In the wild, cases of melanistic (black) leopards and jaguars are common in areas near the equator such as India and Brazil. In leopards, melanism is due to a recessive gene – two black leopards will produce black offspring. In jaguars, melanism is a dominant trait – two black jaguars can produce spotted or black offspring. Melanism occurs in 11 of the 37 cat species. Interestingly, melanistic leopards do appear to be relatively common on Malaysia’s peninsula. A recent photographic survey using game cameras tripped by infrared sensors snapped 100 images of leopards – all black.


Australian BIG CATS: An Unnatural History of Panthers

Despite a report of one being shot in 1843 in Brazil, black pumas (Cougar noire) are non-existent. Another earlier account of South American cats in George-Louis Leclerc’s Histoire Naturelle, published in 1749, mentions a “black tiger, of which we have given a figure under the appellation of the black cougar. The head is pretty similar to that of the common cougar; but the animal has long black hair, and likewise a long tail, with strong whiskers. He weighs not much above forty pounds. The female brings forth her young in the hollows of old trees.” His account is most likely a misidentification possibly of a small rainforest cat such as a margay (Leopardus wiedii) or an ocelot (Leopardus pardalis), which possibly exhibited pseudo melanism. This would seemingly rule out the notion of a black puma for the purposes of our enquiries. In Australia, as in other parts of the world where wild cats are not native, the majority of big cat reports describe a jet-black animal. Many witnesses believed they were looking at a puma simply because of the size and shape of the animal – however, as we mentioned, there is no evidence anywhere that a melanistic form of puma does exist. Reports from some areas – including the Northern Territory and Western Australia – also describe sandy-coloured animals resembling pumas, in some cases running alongside their black counterparts! The only way to explain such sightings conventionally would be for an escaped puma to meet up with either an escaped leopard or jaguar – the animals could interbreed, but it is an event that usually only happens in capitivity. The offspring of a puma-leopard union – a pumapard, several of which have been born in captivity would most likely be sterile and suffer from dwarfism, reaching only half the size of its parents. The offspring from an even more unlikely puma-jaguar union – for want of a better name, a pumajag – would likely produce a similar result. Of course there is no neat solution to this mystery – not yet, anyway. To further illustrate the diversity of sightings we are dealing with, in one bizarre case that as yet defies categorisation, bystanders saw and filmed what they believed was a white tiger on the side of a hill. A white tiger! White emus and wallabies have also been seen in the area of Radium Hill, South Australia, the site of a former uranium ore mine. Perhaps radiation is to blame for the albinism? It’s certainly not an easy colour, or animal, to explain away!


Chapter 2 : Big Cat Noire

The Usual Suspects When it comes to narrowing the field of potential large felids, there are several species that could fit the ‘big cat’ bill, leaving aside for the moment the unlikelihood of a black colour phase of the puma. They include the: Puma (Felis concolor): Native to South, Central and North America, the puma (also known as a cougar, mountain lion or catamount) is a large, solitary cat growing to about 60 to 80cm tall at the shoulder. The length of adult males is around 2.4m-long nose to tail, with overall ranges between 1.5 and 2.75m nose to tail, and weighing in between 53-72kgs. In rare cases, some pumas exceed 120kg. Females weigh between 3448kg. Cougar size is smallest close to the equator and larger toward the poles. A cougar’s diet is influenced by where they live, but typically includes deer, pigs and hares. Pumas can live for up to 20 years. Le opard (Panthera pardus): Originally heralding from many countries across Asia and Africa, the leopard is now mainly found in sub-Saharan Africa. Leopards are similar to jaguars in initial appearance but with a smaller body. Both cats bear ‘rosettes’ – distinctive print marks, with the jaguar’s featuring a dot in the centre of the pattern. Leopards can also be born with a black colour phase in a litter of normally marked cats. The leopard grows to between 61–100cm tall, and weighs in around 28-90kg depending on gender. Its length can range from between 90-1.9m – ad to that its tail, which can measure between 58–110cm. Leopards will eat almost anything including rodents but their most common prey in the wild is gazelle, deer and monkeys. Typically they live for between 12-17 years, and up to 23 years in captivity. Jaguar (Panthera onca): Probably the most elusive of all the big cats, jaguars are solitary animals. They are also the biggest cat in the western hempisphere, and the third largest cat


Australian BIG CATS: An Unnatural History of Panthers

in the world (after the lion and tiger). The jaguar has thicker, shorter legs, a larger head and a more muscular body than the leopard. Jaguars stand 67–76cm tall, and weigh between 70–120kgs. Length-wise jaguars range from 1.6–1.8m. Melanistic jaguars are considered to be a rare colour phase, more commonly occurring in jungle areas where it might serve as a hunting advantage. Jaguars living in dense forested areas also tend to be smaller, a situation that has perhaps developed in response to the size of the prey. Researchers believe the incidence of melanism in South American jaguars affects about six percent of the population. Jaguars live for between 12–16 years in the wild, and up to 20 years in captivity. Asian Golden Cat (Catopuma temminckii): Also known as ‘Temminck’s Golden Cat’, the ‘fire tiger’ in some parts of Thailand, and the ‘rock cat’ in parts of China, the Golden Cat is a likely contender for the big cat crown. Golden cats stand 38–55cm tall, are 116–161cm (including tail length) long, and weigh in between 12–16kg. Despite their name, Golden Cats can come in a range of colour phases – fox red, golden brown, grey or black. The black and golden colour phases could account for the two colours of cat reported from time to time. The underside of the coat can feature faint spots. The Asian Golden Cat lives primarily on rabbits, deer, sheep and goats. On the face of it, the Golden Cat might appear to be the culprit. And, it is genetically very similar to Felis catus, so it can interbreed. Little is known of the Golden Cat’s life span in the wild, but in captivity it can live up to 17–20 years. Feral cat mutation/hybrid (Felis Catus): A man-made problem imported with Australia’s first white settlers, and perhaps even survivors from early Dutch shipwrecks, the average house cat has run rampant in the Australian bush. The most common colours among feral cats are ginger and tabby, but black is also seen. The average cat stands about 20–25cm tall, is about 85cm in length (including tail), and weighs in at around 3.6–6.4kg (depending on the breed).


Chapter 2 : Big Cat Noire

Feral cats prey on small marsupials, rats, mice, rabbits and birds. It is not unknown for some larger feral cats to tackle larger game such as lambs and small wallabies. There is speculation a gigantism gene or crossbreeding with jungle cats (Savannah and Bengal cats are examples of jungle cat-domestic hybrids popular with cat breeders) could have super-sized feral cats to dangerous proportions. A normal house cat has an average life span of 15 years. Marsupial Lion (Thylacoleo carnifex): Extinct about 30,000 years, the arboreal marsupial lion seems an unlikely contender (for more on this animal, see Chapter 9). The small percentage of ‘possum-headed’ cat sightings and others that fail to conform to the usual feline profile are often attributed to the possible survival of Thylacoleo, which scientists guesstimate weighed in around 100kg. One possibility is that a relative of Thylacoleo carnifex – the dingo-sized Wakaleo or the possum-sized Priscileo – could be behind some of the more unusual sightings and killing patterns. The marsupial lion stood 71cm tall, and was 1.14m from head to tail Thylacoleo carnifex is thought to have weighed 100–130kg. Paleontologists say the carnivorous marsupial would have been about the size of a small lion (Panthera leo stands about 1.2m tall, is 1.4–1.7m in length with a 70cm–1m tail).

Mistaken identity It should be noted that not every big cat report is a ‘big cat’ in the exotic sense, or even the feral/domestic sense. Sometimes it’s not even a cat. Wildlife authorities are fond of pointing to swamp wallabies and black dogs as the possible culprits in many big cat sightings, but another contender for the crown of mistaken identity could well be the common red fox (Vulpes vulpes), an acknowledged feral pest in Australia. In 2007, we were intrigued to hear via the University of Western Australia’s Fox


Australian BIG CATS: An Unnatural History of Panthers

DNA Project of a black fox that had been shot on a property in South Australia. The incident piqued our interest for two reasons: one, that it seemed likely if there was one black fox running around then there would be more; and two, the creature explained a sighting by one of the authors in central Victoria earlier that year. At the time, Rebecca Lang was certain the black quadruped she had seen darting across a paddock at dusk was no cat or dog, it looked like a fox through the binoculars – but a black fox? It’s not so strange when you think of the snowy white Arctic foxes, but what would be the advantage of a black coat in the wild? Camouflage from eagles and other predators at night? The black fox mutation could go some way to explaining some sightings at a distance or right on dusk. Foxes are gracile hunters and are often described as exhibiting cat-like stealth. They can also climb trees and fences with ease. And if the coats of foxes can evolve and change colour in relation to their environment over time, then why not those of cats, both domestic and exotic? Another member of the Canidae family, the domestic dog (Canis lupus familiaris), lopes into the picture. As does Australia’s resident wild dog Canis lupus dingo (which comes in black, brown and sandy colour phases) – could a large black dog account for many of the sightings? Large hybrid hunting dogs (known colloquially in Australia as ‘pig dogs’) have been known to regularly escape during hunts. Interbreeding with other feral and wild dogs has resulted in monstrously large dogs capable of taking down game as large as kangaroos and sheep. There are fears that packs of these feral dogs could one day attack a human, if they haven’t already. In 2008, a Canberra man reportedly watched dogs stalk a bushwalker in Namadgi National Park on the capital’s outskirts. Large black cats have also been seen in the same area. Doggers have also told us of being tracked by packs of dogs while out laying baits. They have walked around an area in a large circle, only to come across their own tracks overlaid by fresh prints of very large dogs. Feral dogs have been blamed for wide-scale predation of stock, and there is much conjecture about whether large felids are responsible for any predation at all - but the unique cat-like killing patterns, sightings of cat-like animals within such close proximity, and the time frames of the kills cannot be overlooked.


Chapter 2 : Big Cat Noire

While many big cat witnesses use the average dog as a unit of measurement (ie. German Shepherd or Labrador) when it comes to describing the size of the animal they have seen, they have been very clear about making a distinction between the gait of a dog (which is described as being very similar to that of a horse) and the fluid gait of a cat. The wallaby, specifically the Swamp Wallaby (Wallabia bicolor), is another possible culprit, according to wildlife authorities at least who use this example to discount many sightings. This option seems the least likely of all the cases of mistaken identity, however when seen on dusk, head down and tail up bolting across a road, the ‘black wallaby’ could certainly be open to misinterpretation by an inexperienced observer.

Black is the new black Let’s speculate that, when it comes to preference for privately kept animals in smaller zoos, large black cats – specifically melanistic leopards – have been more popular than their conventionally coloured cousins. Were these cats to escape or be purposefully released, it is entirely likely – were there enough of them – a breeding population could be established and the colour promulgated. It’s a neat but unlikely scenario… which prompts us to explore other avenues for the source of these big black cats. As far as Felis catus is concerned, there is no proof at present that the black colour gene overrides any other in the wild – in fact, the mottled coat of the ‘tabby cat’ seems to be the most common colouration for feral domestic cats judging by the profusion of tabbies shot by hunters in the bush. However, one professional hunter who works in the western areas of the Blue Mountains told the authors he had witnessed an increase in black feral cats over the years. He believes this is due to their greater ability to blend in when shooters are hunting them at night. So could the black coat have a survival, or hunting benefit? Perhaps the multi-coloured cats have also been too obvious a mark for other large predators, and the black cats are the ones that have survived, thrived and bred, with the black colour staying true to type. Perhaps.


Australian BIG CATS: An Unnatural History of Panthers

While we are talking about melanistic animals, we encounter another problem. Virtually all of the sightings describe merely a dark black coat with none of the embellishment one would expect to find on a large exotic cat like a leopard, which sports semi-circular rosettes within its dark coat. That’s not to say there have not been any – the Kurt Engel cat (Chapter 7) in 2005 was observed to have rosettes, as was a large black cat seen in Glenorie, north west of Sydney, in 2008 (Chapter 4). Could there be more than one type of black cat running around the Australian bush; could the majority be feral hybrids, with a few escaped/released pumas, leopards or jaguars thrown in to the mix?

Mega-cat It is estimated there are 12 million feral cats in Australia. Felis catus was introduced with the first white settlers – and there is speculation some may have arrived before then from Dutch shipwrecks along the west coast of Australia – and spread quickly across the continent. Their numbers were bolstered with intentional releases in the 1800s in an effort to control other feral pests – rabbits, rats and mice. At the time desperate farmers saw cats as the ultimate biological solution to the rabbit plague, but they are now counted as a major invasive pest species alongside foxes, pigs and the rabbits they failed to drive to extinction. You would think there was no need for a discussion of the size ranges of ‘normal’ domesticated cats that have gone wild, because everyone knows that feral house cats stay within a certain size range. Or do they? The cats shot and photographed by Larry Beppington, Kurt Engel and ‘Alpine Man’, which feature in this book, are well outside the known limits of Felis catus. And in the right circumstances, due to their colouration, the Beppington and Engel cats would undoubtedly been labeled ‘panthers’ by the casual observer. Researchers Bernie Mace and Michael Williams – after looking at the original photos, handling the tail and hearing the whole story firsthand from Kurt Engel –


Chapter 2 : Big Cat Noire

initially believed the hunter had shot an animal from the Panthera genus. They were wrong, but under the circumstances they could be excused – as feral cats go, Engel’s cat was a record-breaker. Kurt Engel cat: Measured approximately 17–176cm from nose to tail, weighed approx. 35kg. Alpine Man cat: Measured approximately 123cm from nose to tail, weighed approx. 8–10kg. Larry Beppington cat: Measured approximately 117cm from nose to tail, weighed approx. 8–10kg. By way of comparison, the average domestic cat measures 85cm nose to tail at the larger end of the scale, and weighs at most 6.4kg. Australia’s biggest domestic cat on record, and a World Guiness Book of Records record holder, desexed (and now deceased) tabby ‘Himmy’, measured 96.5cm from nose to tail, and weighed a hefty 21.3kg! As you can see from the weights and measurements included in this chapter, Engel’s cat easily falls into the size range of a small puma or leopard. But how did these cats get to be so big? Was it some kind of pituitary gland malfunction in a single individual? Was it due to the inter-breeding of large cats? Or is it some other kind of evolutionary trend? And more importantly, why aren’t any biologists interested in these growth spurts in the feral cat population? Gigantism isn’t unknown in the animal world – island gigantism and dwarfism is the tendency of animals on isolated landmasses to either become gigantic or dwarfed (in relation to their normal size) due to the absence or presence of competition and predators. The giant tortoises of the Galapagos, Indonesia’s Komodo dragons and the now extinct New Zealand Moa are all examples of island gigantism theory; in Australia, also known as ‘the island continent’, examples of ‘time dwarfing’ (a term coined by author Tim Flannery) include the Tasmanian Devil and the Red Kangaroo shrinking


Australian BIG CATS: An Unnatural History of Panthers

in size compared to their mega fauna predecessors. Could this have had any bearing on the development of Felis catus in Australia? Is island gigantism at work?

Wild at heart Another theory is that the cats could be colour variants of the Asiatic Golden Cat, also known as Temminck’s Golden Cat or ‘Fire Cat’ (Pardofelis temminckii), an idea that is backed up with some intriguing data. Golden cats are a medium-sized cat with a muscular build, reaching as long as a metre – putting it at the smaller end of the size range most commonly reported in big cat sightings. Asiatic Golden Cats can also be black (their colour phases also include fox-red, gold-brown, brown and gray), and feature spots and stripes, which could account for the black and sandy colour phases reported from time to time around the country. On the face of it, the Asiatic Golden Cat might appear to be the ideal candidate, if it only grew large enough to account for some of the bigger cats sighted. What if a black Asiatic Wildcat (Felis Silvestris) crossed with a black domestic cat (Felis catus)? Subsequent generations would also be black, and slightly larger than the average tabby cat. Or perhaps a smaller exotic jungle cat species has bred with feral domestic cats to create a black hybrid, a so-called ‘super cat’. Again, size is still a factor – unless these hybrid cats can grow to much larger sizes than is currently known. And such a union would likely throw other colours as well; the question remains – why is black so prevalent? Stephen O’Brien, chief of the Laboratory of Genomic Diversity, has an interesting theory when it comes to coat colour selection in animals: “Another explanation is that about 70 per cent of selective pressures associated with the biological environment involve microbes and diseases...The types of receptors used for coat colors are also used by viruses to enter cells...It is plausible that some of these color mutations are adaptive - relics of historic epidemics.” In 2002, Ian Abbott’s paper on the origin and spread of Felis catus on mainland Australia found many of the earliest records of cats sighted in remote deserts between


Chapter 2 : Big Cat Noire

1891–1904 were black. He attributes the colour to the likelihood the cats were more recently bred from domestic populations, considering the majority of feral cats sighted in the wild featuring ginger and tabby coats. In Africa, high up in Kenya’s Aberdare Mountains, approximately half the native Serval (Felis serval) population is black, a fact biologists speculate is due to a combination of high altitude (black attracts the heat of the sun much better in the cold climate) and a lack of threats and competition (therefore no need for camouflage to hide from predators). Incidentally, Servals have more recently been bred with domestic cats to create the designer hybrid ‘Savannah’ cat, the importation of which has been wisely banned in Australia. Bengal cats (the result of Asian Leopard Cats crossed with domestic cats), however, already have a foothold here and have recently started turning up in animal shelters – how long until they start turning up in our feral cat population? And what impact will they have? Ultimately, the cause of the colouration in these cat-like animals is shaping up to be as much a mystery as the origin of the felids themselves.


Australian BIG CATS: An Unnatural History of Panthers


Chapter 2 : Big Cat Noire


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