Guwahati: In 2019, six colour variations of the Asiatic golden cat (AGC) were found, sparking interest among wild lovers.
Now, scientists from Zoological Survey of India ( ZSI) have found a new “morph” of the species when camera traps were deployed in the West Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh to study threatened vertebrates.
The study was carried out by R. Dutta, S. Bhattacharjee, V. Kumar, H. Singh, A. Sharief, B.D. Joshi, M. Thakur and L.K. Sharma of ZSI. The study was published in Indian Journal of Ecology.
The Asiatic golden cat, also known as Temmink Cat, is a less studied feline species. The species has, however, gained renewed interest from researchers due to recent sightings of the animal with peculiar colouration.
The species is distributed in most of Southeast Asian countries, ranging from eastern Nepal to North-eastern India, through eastern Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, Sumatra, Lao, PDR, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Malaysia.
India represents 15 species of cats, which constitutes around 37% of the global felid diversity.
Asian golden cat is categorized as ‘Near Threatened’ by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and protected under Appendix I of CITES and listed as Schedule I under Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.
According to scientists, differences in pattern of coat colours in cat-species inclines researchers to study the different morphs in their habitats.
This rare and elusive cat is exceptionally polymorphic and so far reported with six different morphs throughout its distribution range.
A total of 79 camera traps were deployed in different habitats of West Kameng district, Arunachal Pradesh, India which has resulted in a total of 7313 camera trap nights. The Forest Watch reported that a good amount of forest cover still remains in West Kameng district although the density is declining.
Under this context, West Kameng holds a significant amount of habitat for the Asian golden cat and comes under the eastern Himalayas global biodiversity hotspot. The species is very little known due to its cryptic behaviour and lack of observation.
“In footage from the researchers’ cameras, 9 images showed this particular species of cats in 5 localities of West Kameng district. It might be noted that the series of images showed a new ‘morph’ among the known ones that was different from the rest,” said Dr. Lalit Sharma of ZSI.
Along with the common morph, two different rare morphs were recorded in the same camera trap between 26 February to 14 March 2019. The golden or brown colour morph, which is a common morph recorded on 26 February at 05:32 hrs. On 6 March 2019 at 04:09 hrs, the ‘Ocelot’ morph used the same trail, its rosette-like pattern illustrates its identity, the same morph was again captured at 10:12 hrs on the same day. On 14th March 2019, the ‘banded’ morph was captured in the same camera at 12:48 hrs. The three morphs recorded in the same camera trap depict co-occurrence as they use the same locality.
“The coat colour of the ‘banded’ morph is not like other morphs of the species. It has long thick bands which run from neck to starting of tail, which are not continuous, and the dull fox-red colour bound by deep fox red colour is what differentiates it from all the other morphs. The bands are different from the ‘rosettes’ and other patterns. However, this type also has a black tuft on its tail-tip, and a white strip runs from the inner corner of the eyes, which clearly states that it is an Asiatic golden cat,” said the scientists involved.
Moreover, the ‘banded’ morph is the first record from India. The common ‘golden’ morph was also recorded from other two places in this district– Eagle nest Wildlife Sanctuary and Brokpalengchen area.
“The Asian golden cat is an interesting subject of study because of its coat colouration. The newly reported ‘banded’ morph which was first recorded at West Kameng, Arunachal Pradesh inspires us to wonder how many different coat colours does a single species have? This species needs proper study for its long-term viability, especially the reason behind its ‘coat’ colour variation. Observation by the locals and sharing of new facts can be important to preserve the habitat of this felid species,” Dr Dhriti Banerjee director ZSI said.
This study of the non-protected areas of West Kameng indicates that habitats located within non-protected areas are also crucial for research in wildlife sustainability. This district has only one protected area in terms of faunal conservation i.e. Eagle nest Wildlife Sanctuary with an area of 218 sq km, and hence, conservation strategies should focus on community-level conservation.
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Ritam Dutta of ZSI said that this record of the new morph highlights the value of community-forests in West Kameng district, and presents these forests as an optional habitat for various conservation projects related to rare species.
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