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The Sixth Cat

on August 08, 2019   duration

Tigrina (Photo by Jim Sanderson)
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Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC) changed its name to Re:wild in 2021

This is Costa Rica, right? Having knocked the mud off my wet boots, I peeled off my even wetter socks and I sat on a bench inside my small room. My rain-soaked trousers were next. I still had to remove my rain jacket and three layers but my pallid fingers, shriveled and white from the damp cold, didn’t work.

Yes, it’s Costa Rica. My colleagues, Esteban Brenes-Mora, founder of Nai – Costa Rica Wildlife Foundation, and his co-workers Cristina Aguilar, José Ramirez, Colline Boiledieu, a volunteer from French Guiana, and I had been checking trail cameras all day in cloud forest, walking from camera to camera at the highest elevations of Costa Rica. Here among moss-covered trees the still dark green forest is stunted by cold and kept damp by cloud-covered skies all day and, for all I knew, all night too. But quiet the forest wasn’t. Always the drip-drip of water falling from some leaf or dead limb was someplace within ear-shot.

Jim Sanderson and camera trap team in Costa Rica Dr. Jim Sanderson and team in Costa Rica checking camera traps (Photo by: Esteban Brenes-Mora).

We walked in and out of mists that seemed to come out of nowhere and disappeared like a passing wind. Rain falls twice up here: once from the sky, and again when the water drops from the vegetation well after the rain has ceased. At times I did not know if I was walking on solid earth or on a moss-covered root-mass that I might plunge through. Now and then we saw large three-toed tracks, bigger than any Jaguar tracks, that could have been made by a small dinosaur millions of years ago. The tracks of a tapir led past the front of a camera. Who’s got warm fingers to take a look?

But tapirs (“Nai” means “tapir” in a local indigenous language) were only of peripheral interest today. Today we were especially interested in looking at pictures hoping to find a largely unknown and overlooked small cat—a Tigrina, though several common names are used. But what is so special about one of the smallest cats in the world when there are Jaguar, Puma, and tapir roaming around? Well, this little cat in particular could be very special, indeed. Perhaps even a unique species found nowhere else.

Most places in the Americas north of the equator have at most five species of wild cats. These same five species are found together in northern South America too: Jaguar, Puma, Ocelot, Margay and Jaguarundi. But north of the equator only two places have six species of wild cats.  The state of Sinaloa, Mexico has the fives species and the well-studied bobcat that is found northward to the Canada border. But in the Talamanca Mountains of Costa Rica and Panama, there is a sixth cat that goes by many names—Small spotted Cat, Oncilla, Tigrina, and Tiger-Cat.   There is just one Latin name: Leopardus tigrinus.

Costa Rica Rainforest Costa Rican rainforest (© Nick Hawkins / Nai Conservation)

In 2014, molecular biologists analyzed samples collected from Costa Rica south to southeastern Brazil, the entire geographic range of Leopardus tigrinus. This analysis showed that the southern-most population found in southeastern Brazil was in fact a distinct species unto itself.  This Tigrina was closer to a Pampas Cat (Leopardus colocola) than its more northerly neighbor.  The southeastern Brazil population became Leopardus gutullus: the Southern Tigrina. Leopardus Tigrina became the Northern Tigrina. But the work did not end there.

Just two samples had been collected from the Tigrina inhabiting the Talamanca Mountains.   These two samples suggested that the Tigrina living in the Talamanca Mountains was like no other wild cat species. A third sample recently collected from a captive Tigrina in eastern Talamanca Mountains in western Panama confirmed what was suspected from the two previous samples: the Tigrina inhabiting the Talamanca Mountains was indeed different from its nearest neighbors in Colombia. Moreover, no Tigrinas have ever been recorded in Darien, that part of Panama that connects to Colombia. In other words, the Tigrina inhabiting the Talamanca Mountains of Costa Rica and Panama was isolated and evolving on its own trajectory. But three samples are not enough to conclude anything. More are needed.

Tigrina camera trap in Costa Rica Camera trap photo of Tigrina species in Costa Rica (Photo courtesy of Nai Conservation)

We can obtain samples non-invasively from Tigrinas brought into rescue centers or from wild Tigrinas.  Because we believe this Tigrina will become a unique species, knowledge of its precise geographic range and elevation is needed as well as an understanding of the threats these small cats face so that mitigation measures can be implemented. Fortunately, cloud forest is not the most hospitable place for humans to live, however, a well-traveled highway splits the eastern and western slopes.

On this trip we did manage to get pictures of the Tigrina in the trail cameras. I’ll be returning to Costa Rica again soon to continue our search for my elusive little friend. Cristina and Colleen will be regularly checking cameras, and José will be working on more accurately describing the local rodent community—alleged prey of the Tigrina. Ultimately we want to figure out the geographic extent and elevation range of the species, since we know so little about this cat. This time I’ll pack rubber boots, the latest in rain gear, gloves, lined trousers, and a wool sweater or two. This is Costa Rica, right?

Donate to support small cat conservation, including the Tigrina, today!

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