You may have heard of the raccoon dogs which live primarily in Japan and are neither raccoons nor dogs but actually members of the fox family. A lesser-known combo animal is the mythical cat-fox. Once only talked about in hushed tones by nervous shepherds but never seen on the island of Corsica (itself a combo isle being part of France but with an Italian name and Greek heritage), the cat-fox moved from legend to “Look, there’s one!” in 2008 when one was caught in a chicken coop in Olcani. The cat-and-fox chase was on and 12 of the sixteen eventually found on Corsica were caught and chipped for tracking. In addition, DNA samples were obtained and the tests results are finally in and … the cat-fox is not the father! Oops, wrong DNA test. The results showed that the legendary cat-fox is …
“We believe that it’s a wild natural species which was known but not scientifically identified because it’s an extremely inconspicuous animal with nocturnal habits.”
Pierre Benedetti, chief environmental technician of the National Hunting and Wildlife Office (ONCFS) told AFP that the creature is a new species of feline called “Ghjattu volpe” whose unique characteristics may explain the shepherds’ folklore about a forest cat that attacked the udders of goats and ewes. The cat-fox has the face of a domestic cat but the size of a wild cat – averaging 90 centimeters (35 inches) from head to tail – with wide ears, short whiskers, menacing canine teeth and a thick coat that makes it flea and tick repellant. Throw in the long, ringed tail and it’s easy to see why Corsican shepherds have been confused for centuries. (See photos of a cat-fox here.)
“It’s their size and their tail that earned them the name ‘cat-fox’ across the island.”
Benedetti says the cat-fox DNA told him it’s not a European wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris) but is closer to the African forest cat (Felis silvestris lybica). Because it’s so rare and reclusive, he knows little about its eating or mating habits – which are critical since there’s so few on the island and it seems to be the only place in the world where they live. Corsica has been inhabited since the late Stone Age/Mesolithic Era and Benedetti speculates that ancestors of the cat-fox could have been African wildcats brought to the island by Middle Eastern farmers around 6500 BCE.
Kudos to the cat-fox for surviving all these years on Corsica, a tough place for wild animals to survive after the arrival of humans. Known extinct island species include the Sardinian dhole (a fox), Corsican giant shrew, Tyrrhenian mole, white-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) and the eastern imperial eagle (Aquila heliacal). Antone Cecchini, the ONCFS field agent in charge of forest cats, says those last two extinctions should have been good news for the cat-fox, but it’s still eaten by its only known predator (other than humans) – the golden eagle.
What the cat-fox needs are some Internet videos and memes.