In the misty jungles of Arunachal Pradesh’s Dibang valley, Indian scientists from the international conservation charity organization Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and University College London have stumbled upon "an evolutionary puzzle" after they discovered six different colour variations of the elusive Asiatic golden cat. This is arguably the world’s greatest number of different coloured wild cat species in one particular area.
- The scientists discovered the colour morphs, during a camera trapping study in 223 locations in both community forest and protected areas of Dibang Valley district from January 2014 to September 2015.
- Their findings were published in the Ecological Society of America’s journal, Ecology on June 7. The study was on understanding human-wildlife interactions in Dibang valley but discovered a group of entirely different-looking animals of the single species (Asiatic golden cat) on their camera traps.
- The Asiatic golden cat (Catopuma temminckii) is listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and is found across eastern Nepal, through Northeast India, Myanmar, Thailand, and China to Sumatra and Indonesia.
- The six colour recorded includes “leopard-like rosettes tightly spaced on their gray coat”, cinnamon, melanistic, gray, golden, and ocelot (due to its ocelot-like markings).
- The scientists said that the animal with “leopard-like rosettes” was an entirely new colour morph found in community-owned forests.
- The scientists have named it “tightly-rosetted” morph. Also, the ocelot and cinnamon morphs of the Asiatic golden cat in Dibang valley is the first recorded in India, while it was previously found in Bhutan and China.
- “According to evolutionary theory, if a colour morph is not beneficial for a species survival – over time, it should die out in the population.
- The fact that we have so many different colour morphs persisting in Dibang Valley shows there must be some ecological advantages to the variety of colours,” Sahil Nijhawan, lead author of the study and British Academy Fellow at ZSL’s Institute of Zoology and UCL said.
- A ZSL statement said the findings may help scientists in understanding “how quickly species can adapt and evolve to changing environments. This would advise scientists of the resilience of the species to climate change or habitat degradation and destruction”.
- Colour morphs are thought to arise from random genetic mutations and take hold in the population through "natural selection".
- In Dibang valley, the scientists suspect that such a large number of colour variations of Asiatic golden cat could be driven by competition with other big cats such as tigers (Panthera tigris) and clouded leopards (Neofelis nebulosa).
- They said being “melanistic” in the misty mountains during nocturnal hunts mean they are better concealed from their prey, making them more efficient predators.
- Scientists pointed out that most of the species including the golden occur in much high densities in community-owned forests in Dibang valley, the home to the one of the smallest tribes in Arunachal Pradesh whose population is around 10,000 including in the adjoining Lower Dibang valley district. Idu Mishmis of Dibang Valley believe that the golden cat, particularly darker melanistic morphs, is believed to possess great powers.
- They observe a strict taboo on hunting all felines including the golden cat.
- They said these community-owned forests would be “under threat” with plans to build more than 15 hydropower dams in the district , which could potentially threaten the Asiatic golden cat and its habitat.