British Isles Was Home To Exotic Big Cat Over A Century Ago
April 25, 2013

British Isles Was Home To Exotic Big Cat Over A Century Ago

Lee Rannals for — Your Universe Online

Scientists writing in the journal Historical Biology say they have proved that a big cat once prowled the British countryside.

A mysterious animal in a museum's underground storeroom helped the team prove that a non-native "big cat" roamed around the British countryside a century ago. The scientists analyzed the animal's skeleton and mounted skin and found that it was a Canadian lynx, which is a carnivorous predator more than twice the size of a domestic cat.

This research establishes that the animal is the earliest example of an "alien big cat" at large in the British countryside. The team says this provides further evidence for debunking a popular theory that wild cats entered the British Isles following the introduction of the 1976 Wild Animals Act. The Act was introduced to help deal with an increasing fashion for exotic pets.

Scientists believe these feral "British big cats" may have lived in the wild much earlier, through escapes and even deliberate release. However, they haven't uncovered any evidence that these animals were able to breed in the wild.

The animal at the museum had originally been mislabeled by Edwardian curators in 1903 as a Eurasian lynx, which is a close relative of the Canadian lynx. The records also showed that the lynx was shot by a landowner in the Devon countryside in the early 1900s.

"This Edwardian feral lynx provides concrete evidence that although rare, exotic felids have occasionally been part of British fauna for more than a century," said lead researcher Dr Ross Barnett of Durham University's Department of Archaeology. "The animal remains are significant in representing the first historic big cat from Britain."

Dr Darren Naish, from the University of Southampton and co-author of the study, said in a statement that "there have been enough sightings of exotic big cats which substantially pre-date 1976 to cast doubt on the idea that one piece of legislation made in 1976 explains all releases of these animals in the UK."

"It seems more likely that escapes and releases have occurred throughout history, and that this continual presence of aliens explains the 'British big cat' phenomenon," Naish added.

The team pointed out in their paper that Eurasian lynxes existed in the wild in Britain hundreds of years ago, but had become extinct by the 7th century. Laboratory analysis of a specimen kept at Bristol's Museums, Galleries & Archives found that the animal had been kept in captivity long enough to develop severe tooth loss and plaque before it either escaped or was deliberately released into the wild.

"Every few years there is another claim that big cats are living wild in Britain, but none of these claims have been substantiated. It seems that big cats are to England what the Loch Ness Monster is to Scotland," said Dr Greger Larson, a member of the research team from Durham University and an expert in the migration of animals. "By applying a robust scientific methodology, this study conclusively demonstrates that at least one big cat did roam Britain as early as the Edwardian era, and suggests that additional claims need to be subjected to this level of scrutiny."

In January 2012, some speculated that a roe deer was killed by a big cat in Britain near Woodchester Park, Gloucestershire. The wounds on the carcass looked as though a big cat had taken the deer as prey; however DNA analysis showed the damage was actually done by a fox.

“We should not be complacent about possible big cats in the UK, but considering these animals living secretly in our landscape can fire people´s imaginations and help us consider all of the wild nature around us. Our outdoors can still hold surprises maybe," said Rick Minter, author of a new book on big cats reported in Britain.