For over 100 years, a potentially significant dead cat has been sat in storage in a British museum. Specifically, the specimen – the lynx Ab4458 – has been at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery ever since it was added to the collections there in February 1903, and what makes it significant is that it was shot dead after living wild in Devon, southern England. As revealed in a new paper published by Aberystwyth* University’s Max Blake and a team of colleagues (myself, Greger Larson, Charlotte King, Geoff Nowell, Manabu Sakamoto and Ross Barnett), the specimen represents a historic ‘British big cat’, though with ‘big cat’ being used very much in the vernacular sense, not the technical one (Blake et al. 2013).

* For you non-Brits who haven’t seen this place-name before, it’s pronounced something like ‘A-bur-risst-with’.

As is well known, people across the UK routinely report encounters with animals that they describe as ‘big cats’. I’m one of several researchers who thinks that at least some of these reports really do describe encounters with non-native felids: Puma Puma concolor, Leopard Panthera pardus, Eurasian lynx Lynx lynx and Jungle cat Felis chaus among them. There are numerous misidentifications and hoaxes, for sure, but the probable genuine presence of these animals is verified by photographic evidence, tooth pit data (Coard 2007), tracks, scat, kills, hairs, DNA, and by carcasses belonging to Eurasian lynx, Jungle cat and Leopard cat (Shuker 1989, 1995, McGowan 2007, Minter 2011, Blake et al. 2013). Some of this copious data (especially that from the scat, hairs and DNA) remains unpublished as of right now, but we’re working on it (ha. You want something done, you gotta do it yourself, I guess).

Seeing as feral animals of just about every conceivable sort have been abroad in the British countryside, seeing as non-native cats are sought after for collections and are consummate escape-artists, and seeing as even exotic, tropical cats are indisputably able to survive in the wild in the UK without difficulty, the occasional and perhaps even persistent presence of non-native cat species in the UK is not especially surprising. Some of the more extreme scepticism directed at the idea of ‘British big cats’ comes from people who think that nebulous stories of black monster moggies are all there is to this phenomenon.

Why are non-native cats of several species living wild in the UK? As just indicated, they must be escapees or even deliberate releases, and a popular explanation for their presence is that they were set loose by their owners following the introduction of the 1976 Dangerous Wild Animals Act (a piece of legislation which meant that owners of certain ‘dangerous’ species now had to pay for the privilege of ownership. And, yes, there really were – and still are – private individuals in possession of such animals as pumas, leopards and lynxes).

Needless to say, a wild-living lynx shot in England in or prior to 1903 pretty much demonstrates that non-native cats were present, on occasion at least, in the UK long before the implementation of the Dangerous Wild Animals Act. We’re certainly not saying that the specimen demonstrates the persistence of a breeding or persistent lynx colony in Edwardian England or anything like that but, rather, are using it as “further support for the proposal that non-native felids have been an occasional but continuous presence in Britain for decades” (Blake et al. 2013, p. 7).

What do we actually know about the specimen’s history? Accession documents at the museum describe how it was shot dead by a ‘Mr Heb’ (the handwriting in the accession catalogue is difficult to read and this name might be wrong) after killing two dogs. It was then donated to the museum by a Mr J. Niblet of Newton Abbot, Devon. The geographical origin of the specimen is given as ‘Newton Abbot’. Foreign specimens are clearly marked with a place of origin, so we have to conclude that the cat really did come from Devon.

The specimen seems to have gone unremarked on until just a few years ago when Max (then a biology student at the University of Bristol) encountered it during volunteer curatorial work. Working together with felid and ancient DNA expert Ross Barnett and others, Max and me set about describing and analysing the specimen and gave a lecture on it at a cryptozoology conference in 2011. To our mild displeasure, the BBC leaked news of the discovery for their 2010 series Autumnwatch Unsprung and, annoyingly, failed to note that the animal was under study at the time. However, I don’t think enough people saw this for it to make a difference (sorry, Autumnwatch).

What sort of lynx?

While Ab4458 is obviously a lynx, what sort of lynx is it? The Eurasian or Northern lynx is a British native that survived here until at least the 5th or 6th century, but Ab4458 clearly does not belong to this species (the Eurasian lynx is long-legged, tawny and usually prominently spotted. Ab4458 is short-legged, silvery and mostly unspotted). Based on its silvery-brown pelt and the black markings on the ventral parts of its facial ruff, Ab4458 resembles a Canada lynx L. canadensis. However, it resembles a plain-coated Bobcat L. rufus in having a proportionally long, ventrally whitish tail and dark facial streaks just beneath its eyes. This combination of features (combined with other areas of ambiguity) means that we weren’t able to identify the mounted specimen with absolute confidence (Blake et al. 2013).

In order to resolve this issue, hair samples were analysed at Durham University’s Ancient DNA laboratory. To our surprise, we were unable to successfully extract DNA. We assume this is something to do with the method used to treat the pelt during its preparation (Blake et al. 2013).

There are bones as well

However, we don’t just have a mounted skin – there are bones as well, accessioned under the same code and assumed to belong to the same individual. If it seems odd having both a mounted skin and a set of bones, there are many different ways of mounting a treated skin such that you end up with what looks like a posed, ‘live’ animal and the history of taxidermy basically shows that people have used any and every method imaginable. Most commonly, a taxidermy mount is actually a 3D model (made of wood, metal and parts of the animal’s skeleton) over which the treated skin is mounted.

Working out the specific history of a specimen can be difficult and people most usually use x-raying to work out what happened. We haven’t yet finished our investigation of the specimen’s history, but we’re confident at the moment that it does not contain any original bone. Bizarrely, the teeth in the mount, for example, are made from some sort of wax or resin. The bones do, therefore, seem to belong to the same individual as the pelt. We analysed 29 measurements from the skull within the context of a large and taxonomically thorough dataset of extant cat diversity – the results showed with a high degree of confidence that the skull is that of a Canada lynx (Blake et al. 2013).

Wild in England, but for how long?

Finally, a major question we have about the specimen concerns the duration of its residency in the UK. Did it escape just a few weeks/days/hours prior to its demise, or had it been living wild in the Devonshire countryside for some extended period of time? Here we come to an interesting problem, since how exactly do you determine this sort of thing when all you have is bones and a skin? We used two techniques: we looked at the wear and tear on the bones and teeth, and we also examined the Strontium isotope ratios of the specimen’s tissues. Isotope ratios can – theoretically – show how long an animal has been living (and eating and drinking) in a given area.

When it comes to wear and tear on bones and teeth, wild animals sometimes or often have more prominent tooth wear than captive ones, and captive ones sometimes or often have oddly shaped skulls or diseased teeth and alveoli relative to their wild relatives (Haberstroh et al. 1984, Watson 1994, Duckler 1998, O’Regan 2001, Glatt et al. 2008). In fact, you can even age captive cats (very approximately) by the amount of dental calculus they have on their teeth.

Examined with all of this in mind, Ab4458 lost its incisors during its lifetime. New bone then overgrew the alveoli*. Thick build-ups of calculus are present on its lower and upper premolars. Based on this data, we conclude that Ab4458 suffered from periodontal disease and – based on all that calculus – lived a life of 10 or 11 (or so) years in captivity during which it fed on soft, non-abrasive foods. In conclusion, we couldn’t find any evidence here that the animal lived for a long time in the wild. Rather, it had been a captive animal for years (Blake et al. 2013).

* Those who recall the infamous saga of the rabbit-headed cats procured by Di Francis will note that this explains the supposed significant feature of missing teeth and absent alveoli in one of the specimens (the Dufftown cat).

What about the Strontium isotope data? While we obtained good results, the values we obtained are – annoyingly – consistent with residence in either western Canada or the Newton Abbot region (Blake et al. 2013). So, inconclusive results. However, it’s good to at least try to learn something from this sort of data, and the method obviously has enormous potential for analysing the provenance of controversial specimens.

Despite the outcome of these tests, we conclude in our study that the Newton Abbot lynx is still worthy of note as a ‘historic British big cat’ that dates to the early 1900s: it was a non-native that lived wild in southern England for a time, though for exactly how long remains uncertain. All in all, our study can be seen as a test case showing the sorts of things you can – and should – do with problematical historical taxiderm specimens. Indeed, similar studies are going to be done on other potentially interesting dead animals. What remains to be done? As I said above, and as I've said before, the DNA, scat, hair and trackway evidence that now exists regarding other non-native British cat species really needs publishing in the technical literature. Stay tuned, there might be some surprises...

For previous Tet Zoo articles on cats (exotic and non-native or otherwise), see...

Refs - -

Blake, M., Naish, D., Larson, G., King, C. L., Nowell, G., Sakamoto, M. & Barnett, R. 2013. Multidisciplinary investigation of a ‘British big cat’: a lynx killed in southern England c. 1903. Historical Biology doi:10.1080/08912963.2013.785541

Coard, R. 2007. Ascertaining an agent: using tooth pit data to determine the carnivores responsible for predation in cases of suspected big cat kills. Journal of Archaeological Science 34, 1677-1684.

Duckler, G. L. 1998. An unusual osteological formation in the posterior skulls of captive tigers (Panthera tigris). Zoo Biology 17, 135-142.

Glatt, S. E., Francl, K. E. & Scheels, J. L. 2008. A survey of current dental problems and treatments of zoo animals. International Zoo Yearbook 42, 206-213.

Haberstroh, L. I., Ullrey, D. E., Sikarski, J. G., Richter, N. A., Colmery, B. H, Myers, T. D. 1984. Diet and oral health in captive Amur tigers (Panthera tigris altaica). Journal of Zoo Animal Medicine 15, 142-146.

McGowan, J. 2007. Big cats in Dorset: the evidence and the implications. Ecos 28, 73-78.

Minter, R. 2011. Big Cats: Facing Britain’s Wild Predators. Whittles Publishing Ltd , Dunbeath, Caithness.

O’Regan, H. J. 2001. Morphological effects of captivity in big cat skulls. In Proceedings of the 3rd Annual Symposium on Zoo Research, North of England Zoological Society, Chester Zoo p. 18-22.

Shuker, K. P. N. 1989. Mystery Cats of the World. Robert Hale, London.

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

Watson, A. D. J. 1994. Diet and periodontal disease in dogs and cats. Australian Veterinary Journal 71, 313-318.