AboutZoos, Since 2008


Museum find proves exotic ‘big cat’ prowled British coun­try­side a cen­tury ago

pub­lished 27 April 2013 | mod­i­fied 05 April 2014

Canada lynxThe redis­cov­ery of a mys­tery ani­mal in a museum’s under­ground store­room proves that a non-​native ‘big cat’ prowled the British coun­try­side at the turn of the last century.

The animal’s skele­ton and mounted skin was analysed by a multi-​disciplinary team of sci­en­tists and researchers at Southamp­ton, Durham, Bris­tol, and Aberys­t­wyth uni­ver­si­ties and found to be a Cana­dian lynx — a car­niv­o­rous preda­tor more than twice the size of a domes­tic cat.

The research, pub­lished on 23 April in the aca­d­e­mic jour­nal His­tor­i­cal Biol­ogy, estab­lishes the ani­mal as the ear­li­est exam­ple of an “alien big cat” at large in the British countryside.

The research team say this pro­vides fur­ther evi­dence for debunk­ing a pop­u­lar hypoth­e­sis that wild cats entered the British coun­try­side fol­low­ing the intro­duc­tion of the 1976 Wild Ani­mals Act. The Act was intro­duced to deal with an increas­ing fash­ion for exotic — and poten­tially dan­ger­ous — pets. The aca­d­e­mics believe such feral “British big cats” as they are known, may have lived in the wild much ear­lier, through escapes and even delib­er­ate release. There is no evi­dence that such ani­mals have been able to breed in the wild.

Co-​author of the paper Dr Dar­ren Naish, from the Uni­ver­sity of Southamp­ton, says:

There have been enough sight­ings of exotic big cats which sub­stan­tially pre-​date 1976 to cast doubt on the idea that one piece of leg­is­la­tion made in 1976 explains all releases of these ani­mals in the UK. It seems more likely that escapes and releases have occurred through­out his­tory, and that this con­tin­ual pres­ence of aliens explains the ‘British big cat’ phenomenon.

The study of the Cana­dian lynx, redis­cov­ered by research team mem­ber Max Blake among hun­dreds of thou­sands of spec­i­mens at Bris­tol Museum and Art Gallery, details records unearthed at the museum which showed the ani­mal had orig­i­nally been mis­la­belled by Edwar­dian cura­tors in 1903 as a Eurasian lynx — a close rel­a­tive of the Cana­dian lynx. The records also showed that the lynx was shot by a landowner in the Devon coun­try­side in the early 1900s, after it killed two dogs.

This Edwar­dian feral lynx pro­vides con­crete evi­dence that although rare, exotic felids have occa­sion­ally been part of British fauna for more than a century
Dr Ross Bar­nett, lead researcher, Durham University’s Depart­ment of Archae­ol­ogy »
“The ani­mal remains are sig­nif­i­cant in rep­re­sent­ing the first his­toric big cat from Britain.”

The researchers point out in their paper that Eurasian lynxes existed in the wild in Britain many hun­dreds of years ago, but had almost cer­tainly become extinct by the 7th cen­tury. Lab­o­ra­tory analy­sis of the Bris­tol specimen’s bones and teeth estab­lished it had been kept in cap­tiv­ity long enough to develop severe tooth loss and plaque before it either escaped or was delib­er­ately released into the wild. Ancient DNA analy­sis of hair from the lynx proved incon­clu­sive, pos­si­bly due to chem­i­cals applied to the pelt dur­ing taxidermy.

Dr Greger Lar­son, a mem­ber of the research team from Durham Uni­ver­sity and an expert in the migra­tion of ani­mals, adds: “Every few years there is another claim that big cats are liv­ing wild in Britain, but none of these claims have been sub­stan­ti­ated. It seems that big cats are to Eng­land what the Loch Ness Mon­ster is to Scotland.

“By apply­ing a robust sci­en­tific method­ol­ogy, this study con­clu­sively demon­strates that at least one big cat did roam Britain as early as the Edwar­dian era, and sug­gests that addi­tional claims need to be sub­jected to this level of scrutiny.”

The lynx is now on pub­lic dis­play at Bris­tol museum.

(Source: Uni­ver­sity of Southamp­ton press release, 25.04.2013)

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