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Another meeting with the Hayling Island Jungle cat

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Over the weekend I (with others) visited the Hampshire County Museum Service store at Chilcomb House, Winchester. Lots of fossils, preserved insects, and also taxiderm birds and mammals. I especially enjoy going there because it’s the repository of the famous Hayling Island Jungle cat (or Hayling Island Swamp cat). Here’s a photo of me and the cat. With permission (kindly provided by senior keep Christine Taylor), I’m taking several hair samples for ongoing work I’m involved in on the exotic cat fauna of the UK. Thanks to Phil Budd for the photo.

Darren Naish and Hayling Island Jungle cat. Photo by Phil Budd. I had to keep my coat on - the museum's storerooms are cold!

Some of you will know the story of the Hayling Island Jungle cat already: I wrote about it on Tet Zoo ver 2 (here) after seeing the specimen back in January 2009. Today, the cat is in pretty good shape and the taxiderm job that’s been done on it is of excellent quality. As Christine explained, however, this is actually ‘taxidermy take # 2’. ‘Take # 1’ wasn’t such a success, as you can see from this 1995 newspaper photo.

As for the background to the cat’s history and origin, here’s a recycling of what I said about it in 2009… The Jungle cat or Swamp cat Felis chaus is an Old World felid that occurs from Egypt in the west to southern China in the east. It’s not native to Europe, at least not nowadays. So, when one was run over and killed by a car on Hayling Island, Hampshire, in July 1988, people were surprised. Another dead one was found in 1989 near Ludlow, Shropshire: back injuries and an underweight condition led to the suggestion that it had starved after being injured by a car (Shuker 1995a, b). British cryptozoologist Karl Shuker now owns this specimen. You might be somewhat surprised to hear that none of this has been reported in the peer-reviewed literature.

The Hayling Island Jungle cat, as mounted today. Well done that taxidermist. Photo by Darren Naish.

What are Jungle cats doing at large in the UK? Based on sightings and photos, it seems that a number are feral here. A particularly good photo of one was taken in 1992 in Durham, and what seem to have been Jungle cats were seen on Hayling Island and in the Ludlow area prior to the discovery of the 1988 and 1989 corpses. Sightings continue on Hayling Island at least. It’s likely that at least some claimed ‘big cat’ sightings made in Britain are of Jungle cats, given that this animal is larger than a domestic cat and that – on seeing one – most laypeople would misidentify it as a puma or lynx. It has also been proposed that British Jungle cats may be hybridising with domestic cats, given the discovery in the Ludlow area of several animals that look like hybrids (Shuker 1993, 1995b). Jungle cats and domestic cats can and do hybridise, and their offspring are fertile.

Presumably, the British Jungle cats are escapees from collections. The species was present in Britain during the Pleistocene (Schreve 2001a, b) but there’s no indication that it persisted into the Holocene. The behaviour of the species in Africa and Asia also indicates that it would be well able to survive in Britain. It adapts well to the presence of humans and can often be found in the vicinity of towns and villages (Nowak 1999). About 70% of its diet is made up of small mammals (mostly lagomorphs and rodents), and there are plenty of those in the British countryside (lagomorphs in particular of course).

For previous Tet Zoo articles on cats, see…

Refs – -

Nowak, R. M. 1999. Walker’s Mammals of the World, Sixth Edition . The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.

Schreve, D. C. 2001a. Mammalian evidence from Middle Pleistocene fluvial sequences for complex environmental change at the oxygen isotope substage level. Quaternary International79, 65-74.

- . 2001b. Differentiation of the British late Middle Pleistocene interglacials: the evidence from mammalian biostratigraphy. Quaternary Science Reviews 20, 1693-1705.

Shuker, K. P. N. 1993. The lovecats. Fortean Times 68, 50-51.

- . 1995a. British mystery cats – the bodies of evidence. Fortean Studies 2, 143-152.

- . 1995b. The coming of supercat! Wild About Animals 1995 (1), 20-21.

Darren Naish About the Author: Darren Naish is a science writer, technical editor and palaeozoologist (affiliated with the University of Southampton, UK). He mostly works on Cretaceous dinosaurs and pterosaurs but has an avid interest in all things tetrapod. His publications can be downloaded at He has been blogging at Tetrapod Zoology since 2006. Check out the Tet Zoo podcast at! Follow on Twitter @TetZoo.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. doug 1 10:34 am 03/17/2013

    I’m a fan of the author Patrick O’Brian’s ‘Master and Commander’ series of novels, not only for the great story telling but also for the well researched insights into the Naval and Maritime history which is typically brought to us by landlubber historians without much appreciation for the life that was lead by seamen during that era. One aspect that O’Brian mentions in a few instances is that these seamen had to be cautioned about bringing wildlife along with them after having stopped at exotic locations for a few reasons, but the men, never the less would smuggle onboard what was available from the locals. Given our very human propensity to form attachments to our animal companions I wonder if some specimens (cats in particular as they were so good at ratting) might not have been released intentionally or inadvertantly over the hundreds of years that large crews of sailors on wooden ships covered the seas

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  2. 2. Dartian 10:54 am 03/17/2013

    I’m taking several hair samples for ongoing work I’m involved in

    Does this mean that DNA data on this specimen will be forthcoming?

    I wonder if some specimens (cats in particular as they were so good at ratting) might not have been released intentionally or inadvertantly over the hundreds of years that large crews of sailors on wooden ships covered the seas

    Obviously they have; there are feral housecats practically everywhere around the world, including on many remote oceanic islands.

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  3. 3. naishd 6:11 pm 03/17/2013

    Dartian: I plan to use the hairs for morphological comparison, but DNA-based plans might come to fruition too.

    As for the release of cats across the world, the idea has been mooted a few times that people transported Jungle cats as ‘ship’s cats’ on occasion, and that this could explain their wayward occurrence in the UK and maybe elsewhere. I’m not aware of any support for this, however – I think it’s wholly speculative.

    One suggested explanation for Jungle cats at Hayling Island is that they represent escapees from circuses that overwinter in the region. Ok.. but, since when do circuses keep Jungle cats? Especially in the modern age? Thoughts and information appreciated.


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  4. 4. Heteromeles 9:12 pm 03/17/2013

    Might want to check out breeders of “chausie”/”savannah” breed cats in the UK. Or possibly Bengal cats (the breed). They allegedly have jungle cats in their ancestry, and it looks like there are breeders in the UK.

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  5. 5. InDefenseOfCats 11:19 pm 03/17/2013

    The transition to domestication has always intrigued me. With domestic cats as powerful as they are, I very much realize why we couldn’t live with them if they were much bigger. Those who foolishly dare to try to domesticate a large wild cat usually regret it! – Author Janette of “Beloved Cat: Once Mortal Enemy, Now Immortal Friend” at

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  6. 6. Dartian 3:49 am 03/18/2013

    the idea has been mooted a few times that people transported Jungle cats as ‘ship’s cats’ on occasion [...] One suggested explanation for Jungle cats at Hayling Island is that they represent escapees from circuses

    Everything is possible, I suppose, but to me both those suggestions sound a bit far-fetched. I think Heteromeles might be on to something, though. That those UK jungle cats are escapees from ‘Chausie’ cat breeders seems much more plausible to me.

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  7. 7. naishd 5:09 am 03/18/2013

    The ‘from a Chausie breeder’ idea isn’t a bad one. However, (1) were people breeding Chausies in the late 1980s?, (2) were/are there any Chausie breeders in the southern UK (a quick google search brings up answers like “There are no Chausie breeders in the UK”!), and (3) were there any Chausies/Jungle cats registered in the Hayling Island and/or Shropshire regions? I have a feeling that Jungle cats require a licence under the DWA (= Dangerous Wild Animals Act), in which case their presence would be known and documented (this is something that people in the ‘British big cat research community’ pay special attention to).


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  8. 8. Dartian 10:28 am 03/18/2013

    Darren: Those are valid questions, but you should also ask: (4) Are/were all jungle cat individuals kept in official, licensed zoos and other collections in the UK accounted for? If there have been no known instances of jungle cats escaping (and avoiding re-capture) from such institutions, then surely we must assume that whoever imported* those individual jungle cats (or their parents/ancestors) to the UK did so illegally. Which means that if there were people in the UK in the 1980ies who were breeding jungle cats for the pet trade they presumably would not have been doing so legally.

    * Assuming of course that one isn’t suggesting that the jungle cat is a native British species that somehow has managed to stay overlooked. But nobody, I trust, is seriously suggesting that?

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  9. 9. vdinets 10:43 am 03/18/2013

    The first possibility to be eliminated is, of course, that the population is native and remained unnoticed from late Pleistocene until recently. I hope there’s enough DNA data on jungle cats in databases to figure out if this is a distinct lineage, and if not, what the region of origin is. Jungle cats in Egypt and Asia have seriously fragmented range, and should have considerable genetic differences between populations (there are ten described subspecies, although the three northern ones are probably identical).

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  10. 10. Heteromeles 12:54 pm 03/18/2013

    Another dumbass question is whether the Hayling cat is a straight-up jungle cat or a chausie, meaning a hybrid with a domestic cat. That looks

    It appeared to me, looking at Google, that there were certainly indications that wildcat hybrids are popular in the UK (cf: They’re even called “supercats,” Darwin help us. A current breeder’s list is at

    So far as it goes, I also wonder whether UK immigration is so well informed that, if, say, an American brought in a “Bengal cat” labeled as a domestic cat, they’d be able to tell that it was sufficiently a jungle cat to require a DWA license. If they are anything like American authorities, my bet is that they can’t. But then, I’m cynical.

    Still, it’s worth checking the DWA database to see how many of these cats were and are out there. It looks like there might be quite a few.

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  11. 11. Hydrarchos 8:20 pm 03/18/2013

    So why is a specimen as important as this not on public display? It seems to me like this is the sort of thing that leads people to either disbelieve in out-of-place animals or come up with wild conspiracy theories about how the government and/or “Academic Science Establishment” is covering up their existence. If the specimen was better known and anyone could go and look at it, the presence of “exotic” felids in Britain would be much less deniable and/or mythologisable. (Of course, this blog post will go some way towards that, so thanks for treating it so factually.)

    Also I believe that, while “Chausies” are domestic/jungle cat hybrids (hence the name), Bengal cats are descended from hybrids between domestic cats and the Asian leopard cat, although most of them are mostly domestic cat now (it’s the commonest, most stable, and I think the oldest, of the “wildcat hybrid” breeds). It’s possible that some of the domestic cats used to breed the Chausie breed were Bengal or part Bengal, meaning some cats potentially have 3 species in their ancestry. (This is interesting given that the Asian leopard cat is generally now considered to be in a different genus from the domestic cat, jungle cat, European wildcat, etc… perhaps the splitting of Felis was a bit overzealous?)

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  12. 12. David Marjanović 12:18 pm 03/19/2013

    If the specimen was better known and anyone could go and look at it, the presence of “exotic” felids in Britain would be much less deniable and/or mythologisable.


    perhaps the splitting of Felis was a bit overzealous?

    Apparently there are chicken/guan (phasianid/cracid) hybrids out there, so… I wouldn’t use that as a genus concept.

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  13. 13. CFowler 5:26 pm 03/19/2013

    It’s my impression that in the US in the 60′s and 70′s, one could obtain smaller exotic species relatively easily through the exotic pet trade (legally or not). Was there a similar popularity in the UK for exotic pets at that time? It seems possible that someone could call a kitten an Abyssinian on import documentation, and sneak them through with relative ease. However if quarantine times were as long then as they are now, a several month old jungle cat would probably be a lot more noticeable.

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  14. 14. DaveBallBeds 7:40 pm 03/21/2013

    Hi. First time I’ve tried to comment for a while. The SciAm login process doesn’t get any better, but at least it (eventually) recognises the Yahoo ID I use for accessing Yahoo groups. The pop ups which don’t disappear (on an iPhone) when you click the close button don’t help either.

    Anyway, wondered whether stable isotope analysis could provide any useful info in a case like this. It’s of course been used successfully to determine the origin of vagrant birds, but I guess that bird feathers persist for longer than mammalian hair? Perhaps it would be necessary to use other tissues – teeth? Even then, it would probably only be possible to distinguish an imported animal, and not differentiate between a locally reared captive bred animal or a member of a hypothetical feral population?

    While I’m here, a couple of tests:

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  15. 15. DaveBallBeds 7:43 pm 03/21/2013

    OK. That didn’t work. What about this?

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  16. 16. DaveBallBeds 7:45 pm 03/21/2013

    Bum. Have to look back and find somewhere DM tells you how to format text ;-)

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  17. 17. David Marjanović 9:25 am 03/23/2013

    Because the SciAm overlords are too stupid to expect a discussion on a science blog, even <blockquote> doesn’t work. <i>, <b> and <a> pretty much are it. <sub> and >sup> do not work.

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  18. 18. naishd 9:39 am 03/23/2013

    Thanks for comments. Should not be a secret that I’m really unhappy with lack of progress on commenting/registrations — as David says, it’s the faceless people at the top who just don’t get it and hence have prevented the implementation of change.

    As for stable isotope analysis… yes, it may be worth looking into this for the cat. I and colleagues recently did the same thing on another British cat specimen: the proofs for the paper concerned were dealt with over the last few days, so I’ll be discussing the case real soon.


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  19. 19. DaveBallBeds 9:32 am 04/2/2013

    Trying again…


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  20. 20. DaveBallBeds 9:34 am 04/2/2013

    Yeah, got it. Should’ve learnt some HTML a long time ago :)

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