Meet the cat-fox, a new species

Central Station | 20 Jun 2019

In the forest undergrowth of northern Corsica, two wildlife rangers open a cage to reveal a striped, tawny-coated animal, one of 16 felines known as "cat-foxes" in the area and thought to be a new species.

"We believe it's a wild natural species that was known but not scientifically identified because it's an extremely inconspicuous animal with

nocturnal habits," says Pierre Benedetti, chief environmental technician of the National Hunting and Wildlife Office.

"It's a wonderful discovery," he adds, holding the feline that's called Ghjattu volpe in Corsican -- found in Asco forest on the French Mediterranean island.

While resembling a domestic cat, the ring-tailed feline measures 90 centimeters from head to tail, has very wide ears, short whiskers and highly developed canine teeth. Other distinguishing features include stripes on the front legs, very dark hind legs and a russet stomach. The dense, silky coat is a natural repellent for fleas, ticks and lice, and the tail usually has two to four rings and a black tip.

"It's their size and their tail that earned them the name cat-fox," says Benedetti.

The animals are found in a remote habitat where there is "water and plant cover offering protection against its main predator, the golden eagle," says Carlu-Antone Cecchini, a wildlife office field agent in charge of forest cats.

Since 2016 there have been 12 of 16 felines seen in the area caught, checked and released.

Now the hope is to have cat-fox recognized and protected within four years.

Cecchini says the cat fits with shepherd mythology. "From generation to generation there have been stories of how the forest cats would attack the udders of their ewes and goats." Then one was caught in 2008 in a chicken coop and research started.

"It's close to the African forest cat, Felis silvestris lybica, but its exact identity is still to be determined," says Benedetti.

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