Black leopard cat in Sunderbans and subsequent mangled news

Was alerted about this story of the mysterious black cat of the Sunderbands from TetZoo’s tweet. Apparently, a small black cat was recorded by camera traps in the Sunderbands protected area in India and this news was then picked up and mangled an international news agency.

The original report by Times of India and more details that were subsequently published were clear enough. A small, black cat “bigger than a wild cat and smaller than a leopard”, with a long tail was photographed in the Sunderbands and this puzzled scientists enough for them to think that there is possibility that it may be a new species. No photos of the said cat were published, although one showing a fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus) and leopard cat was shown.

Image in original article showing a fishing cat (above) and leopard cat (below) instead. Source: Times of India/WWF-India.

This is newsy because no known cats in that area meet those descriptions. Melanistic (black) forms of cats such as the leopard (Panthera pardus) and Asiatic golden cat (Pardofelis temminckii) do not occur in that area. Scientists from the Wildlife Institute of India then identified it as a black leopard cat, with tail proportion being an important identification character. I find this most interesting as black or melanistic forms of the leopard cat have never been recorded. Discounting bad lighting, a small black cat that resembles a leopard cat may possibly be a leopard cat with a mutated coat colour gene, something else unknown to science, or simply a skinny black domestic cat. This is probably why they are now excited as to how many of such cats exist and if it is a genetic mutation or a new species.

However, this news was picked up by International Business Times, which reported “Bangladesh Sunderbans Wildlife Survey Finds New Species of Leopard“. They also called it a “never before seen big cat” in the article, although a conflicting description of it as a small cat also appears. Adding to the confusion was the file photo and video containing a melanistic leopard (Panthera pardus). The video is now all over the Internet.

International Business Times report. Source: http://www.ibtimes.co.uk

In my opinion, the International Business Times could have avoided the mistake with a science-trained journalist or if the journalist sent the article or details for fact verification before publishing. On the other hand, why were the original camera trap photos not shown? Perhaps the Sunderbans researchers are embargoing the pictures till publication, but until that happens and a specimen is found, a black leopard cat will still remain a cryptozoological animal.


Update:

Camera trap pictures of the cats. Source: WWF-India.

From TetZoo through LordGeekington, camera trap photos are apparently online and shows a heavily blotched leopard cat which also brings to mind some dark bengal cats (domestic cat x leopard cat hybrid). If the images are not flipped, it seems that at least two individuals exist. I wonder if leopard cats with darker coats have a selective advantage in the Sunderbans, and if the trait is heriditary, may lead to more of such cats appearing.

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