Simanaitis Says

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THE ISLAND OF Madagascar in the Indian Ocean has no indigenous cat populations. But it does have an elusive feline twice the size of a house cat. Researchers say this oversize tabby originated in the Middle East more than 1000 years ago.

This cat tale is reported in “Madagascar’s Mysterious, Murderous Cats Identified,” by Joshua Sokol in Science, March 13, 2020. It’s a fine example of DNA detective work.

Immigrants From Where? Cats didn’t evolve on Madagascar, though Europeans brought domestic examples of Felis catus (a great scientific name!) to the island several hundred years ago. And domestic cats gone feral can grow in size: The Maine coon and feral cats of Australia are examples.

Another possibility is that these Malagasy “forest cats” might be descendants of small wildcats somehow getting across the 260 miles of ocean separating Madagascar from the African continent.

A Southern African wildcat, Felis lybica cafra. Image by Leonemanuel.

The Southern African wildcat male can measure more than 40 in. from nose to tail. Males of the mysterious Malagasy variety have been known to approach this size. I measured my cat pal πwacket (no easy task) and found he’s around 29 in. from nose to his (self-described magnificent) tail.

At right, π; at left, his pal.

The Latest Research. Michelle Sauther, a biological anthropologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, led a team investigating the origin of the Malagasy forest cat. Sokol writes in Science that she and her colleagues “sampled DNA from the blood of these forest cats trapped using live mice or beef parts as bait. Leslie Lyons, an expert in cat genomics at the University of Missouri, Columbia, helped compare the forest cat genomes with those of cats around the world.”

Caught by a camera trap: This elusive tabby from Madagascar is said to be twice the size of a house cat. Image by Julie Pomerantz and Luke Dollar in Science, March 13, 2020.

Assessing DNA. Sauther et al. write in “Taxonomic Identification of Madagascar’s Free-ranging ‘Forest Cats,’ ” “Bayesian analyses comparing the Malagasy ‘forest cats’ to approximately 1900 domestic and wildcat subspecies suggest that the Malagasy cats are descendants of domestic cats from the Arabian Sea region, including the islands of Lamu and Pate, Dubai, Kuwait, and Oman. Additional genetic influences may descend from India and Pakistan.”

Early Middle Eastern Mousers. Sauther et al. continue, “Combined with cultural and historical information, these data suggest that these felid populations are likely descendants from cats that immigrated to the island on trade ships, particularly along early Arab trade routes.”

Sokol writes in Science, “Another invasive species supports that scenario. Arabian ships also transported Indian civets to the island around 900 C.E. for the oil produced in their anal glands, which was used in perfumes.”

Sokol adds, “Cats employed as mousers on those ships could have deserted at port.”

I imagine: “Hey, this island is pretty neat! There are plenty of lemurs, snakes, rodents, and birds. Besides, all we got on the ship were mice. And those civets smell funny.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2020

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