Researchers discovered a "cryptic" new wildcat species in Brazil.
"The discovery is a reminder of just how little scientists still know about the natural world, even when it comes to such charismatic creatures," a Cell Press news release reported.
Researchers always believed the Brazilian tigrina was a single species that roamed the country, new research suggests otherwise. A team found the animals in southern Brazil are different species from those in the northeastern region, and there is no evidence of interbreeding.
Researchers know a lot more about the southern felines than the northeastern.
"Our study highlights the need for urgent attention focused on the Brazilian northeastern tigrinas, which are virtually unknown with respect to most aspects of their biology," Eduardo Eizirik of Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil, said.
The team used molecular data to determine that the pampas cat and the northeastern tigrinas (Leopardus tigrinus) have a history of hybridization and gene movement. On the other hand, the southern tigrinas (newly dubbed Leopardus guttulus) participated in extreme interbreeding with Geoffroy's cats along their contact zone.
The researchers believe this new finding suggests hybridization can occur between "distinct animal species."
The two species may have adapted to completely different habitats. The northeastern feline lives in the dry savannahs while the southern animal is adapted to the wet Atalantic forests.
"Such distinct habitat associations provide a hint to potentially adaptive differences between these newly recognized species and may have been involved in their initial evolutionary divergence," Trigo says. Moreover, Eizirik said, "all four species are threatened, and we need to understand as much as possible regarding their genetics, ecology, and evolution to be able to design adequate conservation strategies on their behalf."
The research was published in the Nov. 27 edition of the Cell Press journal Current Biology.