Forest cats in Madagascar: Where did these felines come from, when cats aren’t native to Madagascar?

While Madagascar is home to a high number of unique species, such as a variety of lemurs, forest cats do not form part of the native animals of the Big Island.

Indeed, scientists hadn’t quite been able to figure from where did these felines come from.

According to the University of Colorado at Boulder anthropology professor Michelle Sauther who has spent around 3 decades studying primates and lemurs on the island, she seen a lot of cats in the forests, while they are not native to Madagascar.

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“When I first started working in Madagascar, I noticed that these cats all seemed to look the same,” Sauther said. “They were big, and they were always the same color.”

The description of “forest cats” of Madagascar is such: straight tails and a “mackerel” tabby coloring that perfectly blends with the forest. The appearance of these felines is also different from that of the village cats that people keep as pets on the island as explained by CNN.

After years of research, scientists came up with the conclusion that the animals are actually domestic cats who have become wild or feral. Another study speculated that these felines known to live in the forests of western and southwestern Madagascar are wildcat or domestic-wildcat hybrid.

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New studies and their conclusions

In order to find an answer to Madagascar’s mysterious cat species, researchers captured 30 forest cats. The results of their study published last week in the journal Conservation Genetics.

In this wake, blood samples, as well as fecal and hair samples along with dental impressions and photographs of the cats, were taken, afterward, the felines were released back into the wild.

DNA analysis was carried out, thanks to these samples, and subsequently compared to 1,900 domestic and wild cat species throughout the world. This led to an incredible discovery: forest cats are indeed actually descendants of domestic cats.

They are progenies of domestic cats from the Arabian Sea region, the islands of Lamu and Pate in Kenya, Dubai, Kuwait as well as Oman and some probably even from India and Pakistan.

How did the cats reach the Big Island?

According to researchers, there is a high probability that the cats arrived on Madagascar on trade ships along early Arab trade routes towards the East Indies, now known as Indonesia.

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“They would come down along the East Coast of Africa,” Sauther said. “They would stop at the islands of Lamu and Pate, and then it’s just barely a jump to go over to Madagascar. [The cats] were probably part of the maritime ships that came to Madagascar along these Arab routes.”

Are they a threat to other animals?

“The real worry is: What are these cats doing?” Sauther said. “Are they posing a threat to animals in Madagascar? Maybe they’re just part of the local ecology. That’s not to say they’re not a threat, but we need to understand their biology and their history to understand how we proceed in terms of conservation policy.”

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“Cats have essentially gone with us everywhere we’ve gone,” Sauther said. “We can see that journey of humans and their pets going back pretty deep in time. We now know that these mysterious cats are domestic cats with a really interesting backstory.”

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