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Corsica 'cat-fox' could be new species, say experts

media An employee of the French Forest and Hunting Office Charles-Antoine Cecchini holds a "ghjattu-volpe" (fox-cat) on June 12, 2019 on the French Mediterranean island of Corsica. PASCAL POCHARD-CASABIANCA / AFP

Known as the "ghjattu-volpe" in Corsican, the 'cat-fox' could be a new species of feline, according to researchers from the National Office for Hunting and Wildlife (ONCFS), in charge of a study dedicated to the animal, presented to the public on Friday.

At first, it appears much like an ordinary furry domestic cat.

But take a closer look and you'll find that it is much longer than an average cat, measuring around 90cms, its ears are larger, it has overly developped canines and the tip of its tail ends in a black tuft.

Not to be confused with the Borneo cat-fox (or cat-dog-fox-monkey-lemur) discovered by the appropriately named Dr Stephen Wulffraat about 15 years ago, the Corsica cat-fox has existed for some time in local legend, according to Pierre Benedetti, one of the researchers and chief environmental technician with the ONCFS.

It is described in literature, and by shepherds who have lost herds of goats to it, but this is the first time anything scientific has been put forward.

"It's a very discreet, nocturnal animal," says Benedetti.

"This is an extraordinary discovery"

Carlu-Antone Cecchini, in charge of forest wildcat research for the ONCFS told AFP that most people "thought they were crazy" to be looking for something that was part of a myth.

But it wasn't until 2008 when the researchers caught one in a chicken coop in Olcani, and began tracking the population.

Using infrared traps, they discovered traces of hair which allowed them to establish the DNA which they likened to a 'cat-fox' because it's DNA was different to that of a wildcat found on the European continent.

Over the last ten years, experts from the ONCFS have been able to identify 16 "cat-foxes", including a female in the mountainous areas of the Asco Valley (Upper Corsica) which rises to some 2,500 metres in altitude.

Twelve animals have been captured and then released following a short examination.

The male cat shown in the video and photos here has an electronic chip with an ID number so as to study its movements.

Aged between four and six years, he has one brown eye and one green eye, the result of a fight with another male cat.

GPS collar to monitor activities

He was equipped with a GPS collar which helped the researchers gather information over a period of time.

However, the men agree that more work has to be done to understand the animal's reproduction and eating habits.

"It could've arrived at the time of the second human colonisation which dates back 6,500 years before our era. If this hypothesis is confirmed, it's origin would be considered middle-eastern," suggests Benedetti.

"Ultimately, we would like to see this cat recognised and protected," he concludes.

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