This just in: There are no big cats in Victoria.

Puma concolor (image via Wikipedia)

A report ordered by the Victorian State Government on the status of ‘big cats’ in the state has just been released. You can read about it here at the ABC News or here at The Age. The authors of the report, from the Department of Sustainability and Environment, did not find any evidence to support the (crackpot) idea that large cats are roaming around the country areas of the state. The Minister for Agriculture, Peter Walsh has said, “Some preliminary DNA evidence also cannot be entirely dismissed but it is not sufficiently conclusive to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the identity of an animal.” Uh-huh. In amongst the Bureaucratese, I got ‘we had DNA but were told it was just from a domestic cat and we were disappointed’ from that statement. This may be because there are so many feral cats lurking around the place, who annoyingly would share much of their DNA with other species of cats, and also because labs that can tell you the name, address and birthday of someone/thing from a piece of DNA only exist on TV shows like CSI.

From The Age:

While the report author says it is impossible to prove something doesn’t exist, his survey of about a century’s worth of anecdotal evidence alleging big cats exist in Victoria has concluded it is highly unlikely.

“We can’t say 100 per cent there are no big cats in Victoria but we can say it is highly unlikely,” Department of Sustainability of Environment zoologist Peter Menkhorst said on Tuesday.

Mr Menkhorst examined more than 1000 pieces of data, including anecdotal reports collected by community groups and the government.

He said instances where people had blamed the mauling of livestock or other wildlife on a big cat pointed to a lack of understanding of how known predators behaved.

Some people seem to assume that big cats like pumas exist in parts of Australia, but the evidence points to regular domestic cats adapting to life as ferals and becoming really large (see here for a nice discussion on this). Obviously this takes time to occur, and over many generations. But cats were introduced into Australia in the late 1700s as part of European colonisation, and, when conditions are good, they can breed like rabbits (another environmental invader).
Let’s throw some taxonomy in while we’re here (after all, it’s what I’m all about). The article from The Age lists “pumas, leopards, jaguars or cougars” as potentially roaming around the place. This is an excellent example of why common names are stupid and confusing. The cat Puma concolor (it has been moved from the genus Felis into its own) has a wide distribution across most of the Americas, and this has led to various common names being used across different regions – a puma and a cougar are the same thing and they are also a mountain lion too. Cougars can also be called panthers, although generally ‘panther’ refers to a jaguar (Panthera onca) that is all-black in appearance instead of spotted. Finally, leopards (P. pardus) which occur in Asia and Africa but not the Americas, also come in a black morph that is referred to as a ‘panther’. So I’m not entirely sure whether the government report wanted three different species of cats serached for, or just one.

While this finding does not astound me in the slightest, what I do find jaw-droppingly incredible is that the government sought to have this report completed in the first place. They aren’t telling us how much it cost to produce, but I’d guess it was a substantial amount (as in, a decent small-research-grants’-worth). Feral cats (and dogs and foxes) have done so much harm to the overall biodiversity of the state (and the country), and their numbers go more or less unchecked. Surely the money spent on this report would have better used for developing control measures for feral cats, dogs and/or foxes?

Final note: Perhaps the Minister for Agriculture might like to turn his attention to yowies next? There are highly unsubstantiated claims that they roam around the countryside too…


Monday Awesome: PSY – Gangnam Style!

I like K-Pop. I love this song. It’s so damn catchy, it gets stuck in my head all the time. I love the tongue-in-cheek nature of the video too. Apparently PSY taught Britney Spears how to do the ‘horsey dance’ on the Ellen DeGeneres show recently, but that’s another video for a different day.

Enjoy, gangnam-style.


Science round-up: What morsels have I found this week?

Oh, I have been neglectful. I’ve started a new project and it is leaving little time to wander the interwebs, get distracted reading things and write blog posts.

I have some very mammal-related offerings this week. A new species of African monkey has been described, panic about hantavirus in Yosemite NP is escalating, and population crashes of arctic lemmings is a bad thing.

New monkey species.

Cercopithecus lomamiensis juveniles, image from Hart et al. 2012.

Published in PLoS One, Hart et al. describe the second new species of African primate in 28 years. They don’t say how long it had been beyond that other species 28 years ago. These monkeys are commonly known as guenons, and are semi-arboreal, with records of them using spaces all the way between the canopy and the forest floor. This paper is really neat because it presents a very thorough description, including morphology, molecular data, ecological information and vocalisation data. And, because PLoS journals are online, they included the necessary information pertaining to hard-copy availability of the description (as the manuscript would have pre-dated the changes to the Code of Zoological Nomenclature that I posted about last week). The highlight of the article for me was learning that males of this new monkey have a blue perineum.

Hantavirus in Yosemite.

Peromyscus maniculatus, from Nebraska (photo from IncreasingDisorder’s camera)

Hantavirus is not really a new thing, and but this is the first time that an outbreak on this scale has occured. The virus is rodent-borne, with deermice, Peromyscus spp., being the main culprits. The current outbreak at Yosemite National Park in California has killed 3 people out of the nine confirmed cases so far. But because of the popularity of the site as a tourist destination, officials have sent health advisory notices out to almost a quarter of a million people who have visited the park (info from BBC News). Hantavirus is potentially deadly, so it’s not such a bad thing that these precautions are being taken.

Lemming population crashes are bad….

Stoat with lemming (image via ScienceNOW)

…if you rely on them to eat. Research published in Proc R Soc B and reported by ScienceNOW indicate that recent population crashes of collared lemming populations has had implications for the survival of various carnivores who mainly eat lemmings. As keystone species, the lemmings essentially hold the arctic ecosystems they inhabit together. The natural cycles of population fluctuation observed in arctic lemmings was interrupted by a severe decrease in numbers over the years since 2000. This is thought to be a result of decreased snow cover, and by extension, climate change. Population sizes of lemming predators have also decreased as a result of the population decline.

A revolution in taxonomy: electronic-only publication OK’d by ICZN.

I’m excited.

The International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) has published an amendment to the International Codeof Zoological Nomenclature (which confusingly can also be abbreviated to ICZN, but is usually called the Code instead) allowing for publication of taxonomic works in online-only journals.

This is great news. Previously, all taxonomic works (i.e., species descriptions, revisions etc) had to be published in such a way that they had a permanent hard-copy. In the old days, ALL journals were published in hard-copy, so this wasn’t a problem. But in our new  digital age, there have been several journals spring up that do not have a hard-copy version – they’re only available online, for example the journals in the PLoS and BMC stables. Any taxonomic works published in those journals have been invalid until now.

The major change to the Code is that if you wish to publish a description in an online-only journal, you must register your new species with ZooBank, and include information on where the permanent (electronic) record of your work will be held, along with the ISSN or ISBN for the publication.

Go forth and describe!

Monday Awesome: I want to break free.

It’s spring, and in Canberra the weather has gotten warm right on cue. Well, sort of, we’re still dipping below zero overnight. So while I could post a picture of a baby animal, or some flowers, I’ve elected to go with how I’m feeling. After months of cold weather, it’s warm and sunny and I want to go to the beach. I want to break free. Or at least procrastinate by watching kooky music videos. Thank you Freddie et al. for providing me with the opportunitiy to do the latter with an awesomely weird video: