On the Mediterranean island of Corsica, a rare and mysterious wild animal stalks the balmy nights.
But over the past decade scientists have been on the trail of this elusive creature, and now a team working with France’s national hunting and wildlife office (ONCFS), have revealed they believe the animal to be a new species.
“We believe that it’s a wild natural species which was known but not scientifically identified because it’s an extremely inconspicuous animal with nocturnal habits,” Pierre Benedetti, chief environmental technician of the ONCFS told AFP.
“It’s a wonderful discovery,” he added.
The cat-fox, so called because of its colour and markings, is a densely furred russet-coloured wild cat, with black-striped paws and a black-ringed tail.
They are considerably larger than domestic cats, measuring up to 90cm from head to tail-tip, with wide-set ears, shorter whiskers and larger canine teeth.
Its thick coat is thought to protect it from ticks and fleas.
Only a tiny number had ever been recorded, but in 2008 a cat-fox was accidentally caught in a chicken coop, renewing interest in the unusual animal.
Research got underway, and by 2012 new techniques of attracting the rare cat allowed scientists to study it for the first time.
Scented lures and posts for the cats to rub themselves against provided the researchers with fur from which to conduct genetic analyses.
With advanced photographic and later physical traps, the researchers captured their first cat-fox in 2016.
Since then, the research team has captured 12 of 16 of the cats seen in the area, releasing them again after a quick examination.
“By looking at its DNA, we could tell it apart from the European wildcat, Felis silvestris silvestris,” said Mr Benedetti.
“It’s close to the African forest cat, Felis silvestris lybica, but its exact identity is still to be determined,” he added.
The animals live in a remote part of Corsica where there is “water and plant cover offering protection against its main predator, the golden eagle”, Carlu-Antone Cecchini, ONCFS field agent in charge of forest cats, told AFP.
“The cat-fox is part of our shepherd mythology. From generation to generation, they told stories of how the forest cats would attack the udders of their ewes and goats,” Mr Cecchini said.
The cats’ diet and breeding habits are yet to be discovered, the team said.
They hope it will be officially recognised as a new species and protected within the next two to four years.
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