By Sarah Newton-John • 24 March 2023 • 14:01
Domestic cats are descended from wild cats/Shutterstock Images
The fox-cat has been a mythical creature in Corsica for some 200 years. Locally known as “ghjattu volpe” the feline is difficult to differentiate from other cat species. Genetic testing has proven the fox cat is indeed a newly discovered species, the OFB biodiversity agency has said.
A small team from the National Office for Hunting and Wildlife (ONCFS), led by Pierre Benedetti, has been studying the animal since 2008.
Mr Benedetti knew of stories since childhood about the fox-cat – a stripey, thick-coated animal that was said to attack sheep and goats in the Corsican hills.
As head of the Corsican natural areas and terrestrial wildlife management unit, Mr Benedetti has devoted himself to tracking them.
He said: “I had heard about this animal since I was a child but we never saw it. There was this mythology surrounding it, but we have captured about 20 over the last 10 years.
“The fox-cat has nothing to do with the fox. It is a cat. In fact, it’s the ancestor of the domestic cat.
“Of course, it’s a job I’m passionate about,” Mr Benedetti said. “Without passion, a job like this is impossible, especially since nobody believed in the fox-cat. But it will only be a true success when it is on the recognised list of wild species.”
Using baits and scents, Benedetti has been able to capture a small number of cats which have been anaesthetised to be weighed, measured and photographed before being set free again.
“The fox-cat is around 85cm long with the tail. It has well-identified phenotypic marks but it is not the size that differentiates it.
“There is the colour of the coat, the texture, the width of the ears… a lot of elements that differentiate it from a domestic animal.”
Bigger than a domestic cat, with distinct markings, the fox-cat allegedly stalked herds of cattle and sucked at their teats, according to tales passed down since the 19th century.
A push for the classification is being led by official French biodiversity agency OFB, which aims to publish an article setting out key research next year.
The report and article will be given to the International Institute for Species Exploration to ascertain whether the fox-cat should be included in the list of species, to which only 10 are added per year—out of an incredible 18,000 applications.
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