A Wild Brazilian Cat is Actually Two Separate Species

By Becky Lang | November 27, 2013 11:41 am
The Brazilian tigrilla looks a lot like a house cat.

The Brazilian tigrina looks a lot like a housecat. Image credit: yvetteSoler/Flickr

The tigrina is a housecat-sized wild cat that roams through two different regions of Brazil: the northeast corner and the southBut DNA sequencing has shown that these two separate tigrina populations are actually two entirely different species.

A team of Brazilian researchers analyzed the cats’ genomes and found no evidence of inbreeding between the more numerous southern tigrinas and the sparse tigrina population in the northeast. The scientists are now categorizing the southern population as its own species, called Leopardus guttulus. 

A Coat of a Different Color

The new species of cat has darker coloration and larger spots, or “rosettes,” than the northern L. tigrinus. The researchers suggest this is because the two kinds of cats have adapted to blend in to their disparate Brazilian habitats. The northern cats, with their lighter-colored coats, live in open areas with dryer, savannah shrub lands and forests, whereas the darker southern cats live in denser and wetter Atlantic forests.

The team identified the new species in the midst of studying the genetic swapping between tigrinas and two other South American species of leopard. They found that the northern L. tigrinus has continued to hybridize with other cats, such as the L. colocolo, while the southern L. guttulus population has not.

See how the newly recognized southern tigrina  species, L. guttulus (A)  compares to the northeastern L. tigrinus (B). Photo credit: Projeto Gatos do Mato – Brasil

See how the newly recognized southern tigrina species, L. guttulus (A) compares to the northeastern L. tigrinus (B). Photo credit: Projeto Gatos do Mato – Brasil/Cell Press

Conserving Wild Cats

A researcher on the team told told National Geographic:

“So much is still unknown about the natural world, even in groups that are supposed to be well-characterized, such as cats. In fact, there are many basic aspects that we still don’t know about wild cats, from their precise geographic distribution and their diets.”

The researchers contend, in their paper published today in Current Biology, that figuring out how these species are related is important for basic evolutionary knowledge as well as conservation efforts. Poaching laws and land preservation are often determined based on the status of individual species, so recognizing the northern and southern trigrina species as distinct will allow scientists to assess and protect them separately.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World, top posts
MORE ABOUT: animals
  • Saxdragon

    curious if either species is related to ocelots in the southern areas of north america?

  • William Brown

    Thanks, Obama!

    • Mikey Godsey


  • SixSixSix

    Bengals and Savannas beware, there will a new dip into the spotted wild cat gene pool soon. Any report yet on their temperament?

    • Stephen Anderle


      • SixSixSix

        Ah, there is catlike and there is catty…

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Victoria Knudsen


  • Danske

    Why in the world does the author call this call a “leopard?” It is not a leopard, no matter with the common nomenclature is. It is an entirely different species of small call genus “Felis,” (most likely). But for certain it is not part of the Genus “Panthera,” which is what true leopards are. Unfortunately, other cats, such as the clouded leopard, also create cat confusion amongst people. This writer who writes for Discover online needs to do better research and then write.

    • Breanna Draxler

      Thanks for pointing that out, Danske. We’ve clarified by using the more general term, “cat.”

      • Danske

        thanks for getting back to me.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Ronald Turchin

      The word leopardus is used to name a genus for these cats and is only used for these cats.The genus of the leopard is panthera with pardus as a species name. I do not believe they think these cats are related closely to leopards but were looking for Latin words to combine to name another spotted cat genus. Since DNA has been used, many animals have been placed in a new or different genus. If you Google leopardus you will see it relates to these cats.


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