New Species of Leopard?

March 28th 2012: Apparently a leopard with a distinctly different appearance has been spotted in the well known Sunderbans National Park that is situated in West Bengal, India. The Sunderbans (also spelled, "Sundarbans") is well known as one of the better Bengal tiger reserves.

The key question is whether the cat that was seen was in fact a mutated version of an existing species rather than a new species. It would be surprising if a new species of leopard was discovered at this stage. Classic examples of wild cats that are mutations of existing species and not therefore a new species are white tigers and black leopards. Other black wildcats such as the serval are simply melanistic cats with almost black coats and ghost patterns.

The number of wild cat species is settled (we think) at 36. This is a slimmed down number from 100 years ago when, based on appearance, there was a tendency to assess wild cats as different species when they were not, at least by modern scientific standards.

We will await further news with interest. Let's hope that the cat is safe as there are a lot of people in the Sunderbans and you do get human/wildcat conflicts that almost invariable result in the cat ultimately being killed.

Update: it is melanistic - unsurprisingly. And apparently smaller than a leopard. There is talk of it being a melanistic leopard cat. Leopard cats (Asian leopard cats) are small cats the size of a domestic cat so this story is scrambled. Probably just press hype. I think the story originated in the Times of India.

See: leopard subspecies.

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