Andean cats take their name from the mountains they live on in Argentina
. But one group of these
housecat-sized felines ditched the slopes of the Andes Mountains long ago to
scratch out an existence in its foothills. With only 2,500 of these rare cats
left, no one seemed to notice. Until now.
When a photo emerged
of a couple “strays” outside their known habitat, WCS was on the case. They
surveyed 11,500 square miles of the Patagonian Steppe. What they found were
Andean cat scat, skulls, and skin.
After analyzing DNA
taken from the samples, the researchers realized there was a genetically
distinct Andean cat population living at elevations 8,000 feet below the rest
of their species.
records show the lowest elevations ever reported for the Andean cat,” said WCS’s
Andres Novaro, the study’s lead author. “Also, according to genetic studies
underway led by Daniel Cossios, this new population appears to represent an
evolutionary lineage distinct from the highland population.”
Andean cats usually
tread at elevations of 10,000 feet. Similar to the snow leopard of the
Himalayas, Andean cats use their long, bushy tails to stay balanced as they
prowl steep, rocky slopes. Why would they leave terrain for which they were so
well equipped? The scientists aren’t sure, but a rabbit-like rodent called a
vizcacha may have helped them on their way.
Andean cats eat
vizcacha more than anything else. These large rodents live in the Andean
Mountains and the foothills, but evidence of wayward felines was only found
where vizcacha are known to be. Here, the researchers also uncovered traces of
three other vizcacha fans: the Geoffroy’s cat, the pampas cat, and the
Along with vizcacha, unfortunately, Andean cats might run into trouble in their
new home on the Patagonian Steppe. Conflict could result from goat herders who
assume the cats endanger their livestock. Oil exploration activities in the
area might also destroy habitat and build roads, putting these endangered
felines in harm’s way. With new roads into remote areas often come poachers.
“Discovering a new
population of Andean cats is an important finding for this elusive and rare
species,” said Mariana Varese, acting director of WCS’s Latin America &
Caribbean Program. “Determining the range of the Andean cat in the Patagonian
steppe will provide conservationists with a foundation for later conservation