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Woolly cheetah

Woolly cheetahs were reported in the 19th century as a separate species of cheetah that had longer, denser fur. Several specimens were obtained. It may be that creatures were in fact the same species as the present-day cheetah, but with a genetic disposition to long fur. The woolly cheetah has, in any case, vanished.

In 1877, Philip Sclater of the Zoological Society of London wrote of a recent acquisition by the zoo: It presents generally the appearance of a cheetah, but is thicker in the body, and has shorter and stouter limbs, and a much thicker tail. When adult it will probably be considerably larger than the cheetah, and is larger even now than our three specimens of that animal. The fur is much more woolly and dense than in the cheetah, as is particularly noticeable on the ears, mane and tail. Cheetahs have a flexible spine for precise turning and running.

Woolly cheetahs were observed to have thicker bodies and stouter limbs than normal cheetahs, although this may have been a misleading appearance given by the long hair. They had dense, woolly hair especially on the tail and neck where it formed a ruff or mane. The long fur made the normal spotted cheetah pattern indistinct and the animals appeared pale fawn with dark, round blotches.

Long hair in cats is due to recessive genes, so the pertinent gene here may still be present in a few individuals. However, the modern cheetah gene pool is unusually uniform so the lack of modern longhaired cheetahs means the mutation has probably vanished.

The whole of the body is of a pale isabelline color, rather paler on the belly and lower parts, but covered all over, including the belly, with round dark fulvous blotches. There are no traces of the black spots which are so conspicuous in all of the varieties of the cheetah which I have seen, nor of the characteristic black line between the mouth and eye.

Although described as blotched, a painting of the cheetah depicts it as freckled and the artist mistakenly added "eyeliner" markings which were not present in the actual specimen. In 1878, a second woolly cheetah was reported as a preserved specimen in the South African Museum. Both the London and South African specimens had come from Beaufort West. In 1884, a third skin was obtained from the same area, though this had more distinct spots and was a little smaller. By the late 1880s, the trophy hunters had eliminated the woolly cheetah; from the number and locality of specimens it seems that this variant had evolved very recently (generations rather than millennia); perhaps all those animals (it seems only a handful are known at best) were the offspring of a single couple born around 1875, or maybe one more generation.

In Harmsworth Natural History (1910), R Lydekker wrote of the "hunting leopard" or "chita" (old spelling of "cheetah") in which he distinguished it from the "normal" cheetah: "The hunting leopard of South Africa has been stated to differ from the Indian animal in its stouter build, thicker tail, and denser and more woolly fur, the longest hairs occurring on the neck, ears, and tail. This woolly hunting leopard was regarded by its describer as a distinct species (Cynaelurus lanius), but it is, at most, only a local race, of which the proper name is C. jubatus guttatus." In how far this can be taken to imply that the wooly variant continued to be seen after the 1880s is not clear.

A free article from Wikipedia under the terms of the GNU. Date retrieved on May 28, 2008.

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