Popular Science Monthly/Volume 51/August 1897/A Tortoise-Shell Wild Cat


THE cat family has given naturalists quite as much trouble as it has the ordinary citizen in his efforts to repose at night. The wild type (or types) of the domestic animal has never been located, although various views have been advanced to account for the household pet. As far back as we can distinguish man arising on the horizon of history, we find him accompanied by certain domestic animals, the origins of which are quite as involved in problems of transition conditions as is man himself. The late Dr. J. S. Newberry was wont to exhibit to me a mummified alleged cat from Egypt, to show that the domestic animal of the Egyptians was really a civet. The late Prof. Cope thought that perhaps all living species of wild cats had been defined, until Felis bracatta was sent him from Brazil; he thought it probable that there were no more extinct Felidæ, to be discovered until, just before his death, a pocket containing several new types was opened in a Philadelphia quarry not far from his laboratory.

I have always taken an interest in the origin of the domestic cat, not the least diminished by these two lamented paleontologists, who could find no technical basis for any theories that have been advanced. No wild cat has been tamed in modern times, and years of confinement and kindness have wholly failed to soften the savage nature of these denizens of the forest and jungle, some representatives of which will instantly attack man or beast, oblivious to overwhelming odds, and fight to the last gasp. I have always inclined to the multi-origin of various types of domestic cats, holding that wild types in various parts of the earth gave origin to the domestic types therein found. It is impossible for me to reconcile to a common existing wild ancestor the domestic cat of the Isle of Malta, the stub-tailed Manx cat of the Isle of Man, and the tortoise-shell cat of Brazil—all well-known domestic types.

It was therefore with great interest that I viewed in the late Prof. Edward D. Cope's laboratory at Philadelphia, during the past winter, the Felis bracatta from southern Brazil. The size of the animal is that of the domestic type, and its coloration is very near to that of the tortoise-shell pet. Prof. Cope would tell you that its only structural resemblance was to that of Felis jaguarondi, a common Brazilian wild cat of similar size. It would seem that color and size might be at least suggestive, when structural variation might possibly be accounted for by long years

PSM V51 D522 Felis bracatta from southern brazil.png
Felis bracatta (Cope). Southern Brazil.

of domestication, changes in environment and food. But this is mere theorizing, an approach to venturesome ground, of which the paleontologist has a natural horror. At another time and in another article I propose to point out certain interesting resemblances between types of domestic and types of wild cats, even at the expense of being criticised by my friends who stand by teeth, skull, vertebrae, and claws. I propose to assume that the ancients had patience and good methods of reducing wild animals. The origin of the cat is as much of a mystery as the north pole, and entitled to the same venturesome exploration. Paleontology can throw no light whatever on the domestication of animals. Zoölogy has so far rendered no material assistance.

Only one specimen of the new Brazilian wild cat is in existence. Not long since Prof. Cope found the skin in a musty old box, where he had labeled it Felis bracatta, and hurriedly placed it long ago. He had this skin mounted, and the new work of taxidermic art became a favorite on his wide writing desk, together with the skull of a primitive Japanese, the femur of a camarasaur, a live Gila monster, and a live turtle. The bracatta was found in the great forests of southern Brazil. Its chief value lies in the fact that it is the only specimen in existence, and modern values are based on the rarity of the commodity. Bracatta has a protective advantage in its colors, which are such that it would scarcely be distinguished, even in motion, from the dead leaves, soil, or rocks, accounting for a ready escape from enemies and an easy capture of prey, presumably small birds and mammals. Its general color is brown and shades of brown, suggestive, on the whole, of tortoise shell. The shading extends obliquely down the back toward the hind legs. The hair is long and very fine. The beautiful, dark, striped tail is nearly the length of the body, exclusive of the neck. Underneath the cat is spotted after the manner of leopards, and the legs have dark bands and boots. It is a slender, tapering, and graceful animal. Its markings are plain, suggesting the beautiful in simplicity, which aid in its general harmony with surroundings and to conceal it from the eye. It has black and gray ears of moderate size, with long inside hairs of a buff color. The whiskers are long and buff-colored, with black bases. Below each nostril and above each eye are buff spots; the cheeks are yellowish brown; the chin is a pale buff, and the throat has three rows of brown spots; the tip of the tail is black; the feet are small.

Prof. Cope pronounced the animal new to science because it was allied to only one species, Felis jaguarondi, and was possessed of characters which appeared to him to be distinct. The jaguarondi is a wild cat of similar size from the same locality, but its structural differences are notable. These structural differences are visible at almost every point of comparison, applying to feet, toes, claws, tail, ears, fur, and coloration. The aggregate of these characters indicates the specific differences.

Accompanying this article is a drawing of the bracatta as he probably appeared in life and environment. A mounted skin is necessarily more or less contracted and distorted. I think, however, the artist has effected the proper catlike proportions and markings with much fidelity to Nature.

It will be noted that the harmony of all this coloration is best expressed by the general term of tortoise shell. Its love of small birds and mice further suggests the domestic cat. Perhaps future capture of the species and a study of its habits in the wild state may disclose its relations, if any, with the tortoise shell of the fireside. At least it has the merit of being the nearest approach yet found to this particular domestic type.