A new species of wild cat has been identified in the jungles of Brazil, scientists reported Wednesday.
It is rare for new mammal species to be identified, and the conclusion that a population of wild cats known as tigrina was heretofore undocumented came only after a molecular analysis of the cats revealed that two populations of tigrina in Brazil do not interbreed and are evolutionarily distinct.
The research, published in the journal Current Biology, was led by Eduardo Eizirik from the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul in Porto Alegre, Brazil.
Eizirik and his team collected DNA samples from both the northeastern and southern tigrina as well as material from pampas cats in the north of Brazil and Geoffery's cats from the south.
All of the tested wild cat species are of the genus Leopardus and are closely related. But their genetic ties do not make for equal interbreeding among the cats.
The researchers found that the populations of the southern tigrina were breeding with populations of Geoffery's cats and that the northern pampas cat was interbreeding with the northern tigrina. But there appeared to be no breeding across the geographic lines; northern tigrinas do not seem to wander south and breed with Geoffery's cats and southern tigrinas, likewise, do not breed with pampas cats.
In the research abstract to their Current Biology paper, the authors write that the "two seemingly continuous Brazilian tigrina populations show no evidence of ongoing gene flow between them, leading us to support their formal recognition as distinct species, namely L. tigrinus in the northeast and L. guttulus in the south."
Eizirik told BBC Nature that his team really did not expect to find this species-level distinction between Brazil's tigrina population.
The northeastern tigrina species shall retain the original scientific name Leopardus tigrinus because of their northerly location, while Leopardus guttulus becomes recognized as a new species.
"Recognizing a distinct tigrina species in Brazil highlights the need for urgent assessment of its conservation status...and it may be found to be threatened," Eizirik told BBC Nature.
"[These results] illustrate how much is still unknown about the natural world, even in groups that are supposed to be well-characterized, such as cats," he said.
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