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A New Species of Wild Cat Found Prowling Brazilian Forests and Grasslands

Picture of a tigrina in Brazil
The tigrina is actually two separate species, say researchers in a new report. Photograph by Tadeu Oliveira

Wild cats are charismatic creatures, so you’d think we’d know them all pretty well by now. Just how little we understand—at least in some cases—is reflected in the identification of a new species of cat known as a tigrina in northeastern Brazil.

Scientists have discovered that two populations of tigrina previously thought to be one species do not, in fact, interbreed and thus are distinct, according to results published today in Current Biology.

“So much is still unknown about the natural world, even in groups that are supposed to be well-characterized, such as cats,” says the study’s lead author, Eduardo Eizirik of Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil.

“In fact, there are many basic aspects that we still don’t know about wild cats, [including] their precise geographic distribution and their diets.”

Eizirik’s results have implications for conservation efforts—particularly laws about poaching and the designation of national parkland. Such measures are often focused on individual species.

Recognizing the northeastern tigrina as distinct means that biologists will have to assess its conservation status and determine what steps need to be taken so that both species of tigrina can be adequately protected. (See “Rare Cat Captured in Camera Trap.”)

Ancient Interbreeding

Eizirik and colleagues weren’t looking to discover a new species. Instead, they were looking to understand the evolutionary history of what were thought to be three species of cat from the genus Leopardus:

The Pampas cat (Leopardus colocolo) looks like a large, heavy-set, long-haired house cat. It lives in the grasslands and scrublands of South America, from southern Argentina and Chile up through Peru and Ecuador along the western third of the continent.

Geoffroy’s cat (Leopardus geoffroyiis roughly the same size as the Pampas cat, with a brownish-yellow or gray coat, black spots on its trunk, and dark bands across its tail and limbs. Like the Pampas cat, Geoffroy’s cat likes scrublands and lives throughout Argentina.

The tigrina (Leopardus tigrinus), also known as the oncilla or little spotted cat, lives throughout much of Central and South America. With a yellow-brown coat and black rosettes, the tigrina looks like a house cat-sized leopard. Scientists had previously identified four sub-populations of tigrina, including the southern tigrina, which lives primarily in Brazil’s mountainous forests, and the northeastern tigrina, which lives in savannahs and grasslands. The coat of the northeastern tigrina is slightly lighter, and the rosettes are sightly smaller, than those of its southern relative. (Learn about National Geographic’s big cats initiative.)

Eizirik and colleagues obtained DNA samples from a total of 216 different Leopardus cats across their ranges. Analysis of the DNA sequences found in the mitochondria, the cell’s power plant, revealed ancient interbreeding between the Pampas cat and the northeastern tigrina.

Since an individual only inherits mitochondrial DNA from its mother, researchers could peer into the ancient history of these two felines, and found that they mated together frequently before the two cats split into separate species.

Although the Geoffroy’s cat and the southern tigrina divided into separate species over a million years ago, they began to mate together in the more recent past in the areas of southern Brazil and Bolivia where their habitats overlap. While the two cats interbreed regularly at this contact zone, the mating doesn’t extend to farther areas and the two species remain distinct.

Known Unknowns

When Eizirik and colleagues analyzed the genetics of the two different tigrina populations, however, they were surprised to learn that genes did not appear to be moving between the northeastern and southern tigrinas. (See “Pictures: 7 Cat Species Found in 1 Forest—A Record.”)

“This observation implies that these tigrina populations are not interbreeding, which led us to recognize them as distinct species,” Eizirik says. The researchers have suggested that the northeastern tigrina retain its current name of L. tigrinus, while dubbing the southern tigrina L. guttulus.

“Very little was—and still is—known about this species,” says Eizirik. “There have been some initial studies on its diet, but still most of its basic biology remains poorly known, including density, habitat use, and population trends.”

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Comments

  1. Dean Wyman
    Maine
    December 31, 2013, 5:42 pm

    I have been reading the comments. Some are just silly, others are overly sympathetic or even very intelligent. The fact is that genetic study is now revealing things about the natural world we have not known since the 1700′s. There have been dozens of misconceptions about the cat family and the phylogeny and correct taxonomy.
    Some as recent as the 1990′s.
    19 genera became 7 tribes or lineages and only, now, 37 species and a heck of a lot less stupid subspecies, (of lion, leopard, wildcat and puma for example).
    What is next around the corner? I’m sure somebody’s working on it.

  2. Maya
    Israel
    December 16, 2013, 4:22 am
  3. Dodo
    US
    December 4, 2013, 12:24 am

    Dunno who mentioned the Liger, but just because the two(lion and tiger) can create such a creature, doesn’t quite create a new animal. Like mules(donkey and horse offspring) they become a infertile creature. Unnatural mutants more than new animal species.

  4. charles l thornburg
    United States
    December 2, 2013, 6:36 pm

    Ocelot
    Animal
    The ocelot, also known as the dwarf leopard, is a wild cat distributed extensively over South America including the islands of Trinidad and Margarita, Central America, and Mexico. It has been reported as far north as Texas. Wikipedia

  5. blake
    December 2, 2013, 2:55 pm

    it looks like a cat ;)

  6. Bulldozer
    December 1, 2013, 10:36 pm

    There’s too many ‘splitters’ in the current generation of biologists — it’s a MARGAY for christsakes !!!!

  7. Sam
    December 1, 2013, 9:01 pm

    “New species”? I’m very dissapointed to see such a fundamental error in basic logic aired in NatGeo of all places. The discovery is new, not the species.

  8. Babu G. Ranganathan
    December 1, 2013, 2:45 pm

    NATURAL LIMITS TO EVOLUTION: Only micro-evolution, or evolution within biological “kinds,” is genetically possible (such as the varieties of dogs, cats, horses, cows, etc.), but not macro-evolution, or evolution across biological “kinds,” (such as from sea sponge to human). All real evolution in nature is simply the expression, over time, of already existing genes or variations of already existing genes. For example, we have breeds of dogs today that we didn’t have a few hundred years ago. The genes for these breeds had always existed in the dog population but never had opportunity before to be expressed. Only limited evolution or adaptation, variations of already existing genes and traits, is possible.

    The genes (chemical instructions or code) must first exist or otherwise the evolution cannot occur. Genes instruct the body to build our tissues and organs. Nature is mindless and has no ability to design and program entirely new genes for entirely new traits. Nature can only work with the genetic ability already existing in species. Nature cannot perform the genetic engineering necessary to increase that genetic ability.

    Many people have wrong ideas of how evolution is supposed to work. Physical traits and characteristics are determined and passed on by genes – not by what happens to our body parts. For example, if a woman were to lose her finger this wouldn’t affect how many fingers her baby will have. Changing the color and texture of your hair will not affect the color and texture of your children’s hair. So, even if an ape’s muscles and bones changed so that it could walk upright it still would not be able to pass on this trait to its offspring. Only changes or mutations that occur in the genetic code of reproductive cells (i.e. sperm and egg) can be passed on to offspring.

    Modern evolutionists believe and hope that over, supposedly millions of years, random genetic mutations in the genes of reproductive cells caused by environmental radiation will generate entirely new genes. This is total blind and irrational faith on the part of evolutionists. It’s much like believing that randomly changing the sequence of letters in a romance novel, over millions of years, will turn it into a book on astronomy! That’s the kind of blind faith macro-evolutionists have.

    When evolutionary scientists teach that random genetic mutations in species over, supposedly, millions of years caused by random environmental agents such as radiation, produced entirely new genes (i.e. genetic code or genetic information) leading to entirely new forms of life, they are not teaching science but simply a faith, a belief!

    What about natural selection? Natural selection doesn’t produce biological traits or variations. It can only “select” from biological variations that are possible and which have survival value. The term “natural selection” is a figure of speech. Nature doesn’t do any conscious selecting. If a variation occurs in a species (i.e. change in skin color) that helps the species survive then that survival is called being “selected.” That’s all it is. Natural selection is a passive process in nature, not a creative process.

    How could species have survived if their vital tissues, organs, reproductive systems, etc. were still evolving? A partially evolved trait or organ that is not complete and fully functioning from the start would be a liability to a species, not a survival asset. Plants and animals in the process of macro-evolution would be unfit for survival. For example, “if a leg of a reptile were to evolve (over supposedly millions of years) into a wing of a bird, it would become a bad leg long before it became a good wing” (Dr. Walt Brown, scientist and creationist). Survival of the fittest actually would have prevented evolution across biological kinds! Read my Internet article: WAR AMONG EVOLUTIONISTS! (2nd Edition).

    All species of plants and animals in the fossil record are found complete, fully-formed, and fully functional. This is powerful evidence that species did not come into existence gradually by any macro-evolutionary process but, rather, came into existence as complete and ready-to-go from the very beginning, which is possible only by special creation.

    All the fossils that have been used to support human evolution have been found to be either hoaxes, non-human, or human, but not non-human and human (i.e. Neanderthal Man was discovered later to be fully human). Textbooks and museums still continue to display examples and illustrations supporting human evolution which most evolutionists have rejected and no longer support. Many diagrams of ape-man creatures over the years were reconstructed according to evolutionary interpretations from disputable bones that have now been discredited but still being taught in school textbooks.

    What about genetic and biological similarities between species? Genetic information, like other forms of information, cannot happen by chance, so it is more logical to believe that genetic and biological similarities between all forms of life are due to a common Designer who designed similar functions for similar purposes. It doesn’t mean all forms of life are biologically related!

    Also, so-called “Junk DNA” isn’t junk. Although these “non-coding” segments of DNA don’t code for proteins, they have recently been found to be vital in regulating gene expression (i.e. when, where, and how genes are expressed, so they’re not “junk”). Read my popular Internet article: HOW FORENSIC SCIENCE REFUTES ATHEISM

    The real issue is what biological variations are possible, not natural selection.

    Visit my latest Internet site: THE SCIENCE SUPPORTING CREATION .

    I discuss: Punctuated Equilibria, “Junk DNA,” genetics, mutations, natural selection, fossils, dinosaur “feathers,” the genetic and biological similarities between various species, etc., etc.

    Sincerely,
    Babu G. Ranganathan*
    (B.A. theology/biology)

    Author of popular Internet article, TRADITIONAL DOCTRINE OF HELL EVOLVED FROM GREEK ROOTS

    *I have had the privilege of being recognized in the 24th edition of Marquis “Who’s Who In The East” for my writings on religion and science. I have given successful lectures (with question and answer period afterward) before evolutionist science faculty and students at various colleges/universities.

  9. isabelle
    December 1, 2013, 11:28 am

    look like a bengal cat to me

  10. Pamela Butler
    Australia
    December 1, 2013, 6:58 am

    Why call it a tigrina when it isn’t even striped? Why do you insist on calling a species new? Newly found is a much more accurate description.

  11. bels
    indonesia
    December 1, 2013, 4:12 am

    Ocelot with slightly different pattern of coat.

  12. Johan Van Der Meijde
    netherlands
    December 1, 2013, 2:53 am

    I dont know if this picture is taken in the wild. Nobody see the perfect 90° edge right of his head. Seeing that, look above there looks like a reflection in glass of a person. And the way the leafsare put together on the left side. I dont know if this post is usefull.

  13. S
    United States
    December 1, 2013, 1:36 am

    “dab
    pa
    November 30, 12:18 am
    lets kill it !!!!!!!!!!!!!”

    Says a Pennsylvanian hunting redneck. Please respect new species. You disgust me.

  14. Allan
    Nairobi
    November 30, 2013, 11:49 pm

    I think the species is somehow related to leopads even though their sizes differs!

  15. Stephanie L
    Western North Carolina
    November 30, 2013, 10:59 pm

    No Bob, we’re not responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs but apparently you missed the HUGE NEWS that the Black and Western Black Rhino are now officially EXTINCT BECAUSE OF HUMANS. If the proposed ideas and measures had been implemented then they MIGHT have had a fighting chance, but instead, they were continuously and ruthlessly hunted down and killed with absolutely no remorse.

    So your analogy of “Did we cause the dinosaurs to go extinct” simply shows your ignorance. If we had been around and evolved to the point we are now, Yes I am 300% sure we Could have definitely caused their extinction.
    Best thing to happen to animals is for all of us “superior” beings to be extinguished from this planet. There are far to few Good people in this world and far to many ignorant, arrogant, and selfish people and eventually, all rhinos will be utterly extinct as well as the Elephants, all Big Cats, the Asian Black Bear, Polar Bears, Arctic Foxs and oh so many more friggin animals that WE continue to endanger and then turn around and act like “we couldnt help it”

    #$!^*%! @$&^%÷

  16. Carl Miles
    Venezuela
    November 30, 2013, 8:02 pm

    en mi país Venezuela es muy común verlos se llaman Cunaguaros , cuando voy de casería con mi arco los veo en todas partes, son presa fácil

    in my country Venezuela is very common to see them called Cunaguaro, when I go hunting with my bow I see them everywhere, they are easy prey

  17. Carlos Lucena
    Venezuela
    November 30, 2013, 7:53 pm

    en mi pais es muy comun verlos en los bosques y los llamamos Cunaguaros

  18. kanuto
    Philippines
    November 30, 2013, 6:05 pm

    Cats of the same fur flock together.

  19. Amanda
    Oregon
    November 30, 2013, 5:59 pm

    Looks like an Ocelot

  20. Sean T.
    USA
    November 30, 2013, 4:32 pm

    Lion and tigers can interbreed and create the Liger, but they are separate species. Many species of fish will produce hybrids under aquarium conditions so it is definitely not the inability to interbreed that separates a species but their lack of inbreeding under normal conditions.

  21. Dave
    Calgary
    November 30, 2013, 4:28 pm

    Bob u talking about other ppl showing their ignorance , what do u know about native’s ? I am native and we did use to live ” as one with nature …. So Bob think before u show ur ignorance !!!

  22. John Knouse
    Glouster, Ohio
    November 30, 2013, 4:19 pm

    Many scientists believe that species can be defined through simple reproductive isolation as long as there are physically distinguishing characteristics. Other scientists believe that geographic isolation is not sufficient, but that there must be genetic barriers to interbreeding. Other points of view are in-between, including the idea that differential timing of reproduction that thus results in reproductive isolation can define a new species. Personally, I would not accept the geographical isolation by itself but would accept most other forms of reproductive isolation.

  23. donna parker
    Edmonton,Alberta Canada
    November 30, 2013, 3:59 pm

    Hope now we can keep the curious, and sometimes destructive traits at a HUGE distance . Research in itself can and does interfere with the course intended

  24. Chuy
    United States
    November 30, 2013, 2:25 pm

    I thought species couldn’t interbreed? Which is why they are called species? Are we now calling breeds of cats as species?

  25. erin
    Missouri
    November 30, 2013, 12:52 pm

    A beautiful cat that’s not large enough to eat me, how lovely!

  26. Unknown Hinson
    Maine
    November 30, 2013, 12:17 pm

    This cat may or may not be able to consume 25 or more hot dogs in one sitting. I seent it.

  27. Julie Elizabeth
    Ramsgate England
    November 30, 2013, 5:02 am

    its always great news when new species are discovered it reminds us the world isn’t so doom n gloom after all. What a beautiful animal. Xx

  28. dab
    pa
    November 30, 2013, 12:18 am

    lets kill it !!!!!!!!!!!!!

  29. Jenna
    November 29, 2013, 6:01 pm

    That’s funny, because to me, it looks exactly like an Ocelot.

  30. Sunny
    California, USA
    November 29, 2013, 11:52 am

    Thank you for posting that pretty picture of a Trigrina ~ Such a very beautiful coat!

  31. Bob
    USA
    November 29, 2013, 11:24 am

    Hey Harley, were we responsible for the extinction of the Dinosaurs also? Species have come and gone for millions of years before mankind arrived and will continue to do so long after we have left the earth. You should invest just a little bit of time thinking about a subject so that when you comment you don’t show your ignorance to the world. Let me guess you probably bought into that load of crap about how Native Americans “lived as one with mother nature”.

  32. harley
    earth
    November 29, 2013, 9:42 am

    OOOO look we found a new CAT ooooooooooOOOOOOOO NEVER MIND just went EXTINCIT. The ONLY things HUMANS are GREAT at Killing EVERYTHING then going oops.

  33. Mon
    Philippines
    November 29, 2013, 2:18 am

    Looks like Asia leopard cat.

  34. Ashley
    United States
    November 28, 2013, 1:55 pm

    Cool! Hopefully more information and facts about this species will be discovered.

  35. Matt
    November 28, 2013, 9:45 am

    Looks like Photoshop to me.

  36. Linda Merchant
    Montana,USA
    November 28, 2013, 8:38 am

    This is awesome news.Cats are know to be stand offish,and these have been hiding under our noses for god knows how long.

  37. Dj
    November 28, 2013, 5:50 am

    Are they absolutely sure it’s new it looks like the Ocelot by the picture? So exciting if it is nature is beautiful.

  38. Nick
    United States
    November 27, 2013, 11:07 pm

    I think this is great news. Hopefully there are funds available to find out more about the unknown aspects of the new species.

  39. simon webb
    November 27, 2013, 7:35 pm

    Similar to the Margay, indeed. A little smaller, denser spots.

  40. Therapsid
    United States
    November 27, 2013, 5:19 pm

    The relentless splitting of species continues.

    The term “species” is being devalued. I have no doubt that there will be a push-back and a pendulum shift back to lumping in the future.

  41. Rachael Korducki
    November 27, 2013, 2:57 pm

    It looks like a Margay to me.