The only known illustration of a woolly cheetah (Public domain)
Nowadays, the once-obscure, elusive king cheetah, a mutant morph of the normal cheetah Acinonyx jubatus famously adorned with an ornate patterning of stripes and blotches very different from the latter species' polka-dotted wild-type counterpart, is enjoying a well-earned scientific renaissance.
In marked contrast, however, a second, equally eyecatching cheetah form seems to have vanished without trace into the mists of scientific anonymity, after only the briefest of spells in the zoological limelight.
On 19 June 1877, Philip L. Sclater, longstanding secretary of the Zoological Society of London, recorded in its Proceedings (i.e. the PZSL) the acquisition by London Zoo of a most unusual cat - male and apparently not fully grown - which he described as follows:
It presents generally the appearance of a cheetah (Felis jubatus) [the cheetah's old scientific name], but is thicker in the body, and has shorter and stouter limbs, and a much thicker tail. When adult it will probably be considerably larger than the Cheetah, and is larger even now than our three specimens of that animal. The fur is much more woolly and dense than in the Cheetah, as is particularly noticeable on the ears, mane and tail. The whole of the body is of a pale isabelline colour, rather paler on the belly and lower parts, but covered all over, including the belly, with roundish dark fulvous blotches. There are no traces of the black spots which are so conspicuous in all of the varieties of the Cheetah which I have seen, nor of the characteristic black line between the mouth and eye.
Evidently this brown-blotched felid appeared very different from the usual form - to the extent that Sclater stated that it was impossible to associate it with this. Instead, he proposed for it the temporary name of Felis lanea, the woolly cheetah. It had been obtained from Beaufort West, South Africa, and, as Sclater himself remarked: "It is difficult to understand how such a distinct animal can have so long escaped the observations of naturalists".
One other matter is also difficult to understand, and remains a source of confusion concerning this mystery cat. Sclater referred to its markings as 'blotches', but in the illustration that accompanied this report, the creature was depicted with numerous tiny spots!
The PZSL 1877 chromolithograph of the woolly cheetah that accompanied Sclater's report of it (Public domain)
A year later, on 18 June 1878, Sclater noted in the Society's Proceedings that he had received a letter from a Mr E.L. Layard, informing him that a second woolly cheetah was currently preserved in the South African Museum. Like the first, it had been procured from Beaufort West. It had been killed by Arthur V. Jackson who, like Layard himself, assumed that it was an erythristic (abnormally red) variant of the normal cheetah. At the end of this item, in answer to an enquiry by Layard, Sclater recorded that the claws of the London Zoo specimen were non-retractile.
Sharing Sclater's own bewilderment as to how so large and unusual an animal could have evaded scientific detection until then, many zoologists had grave reservations concerning his optimism that the woolly cheetah constituted a totally separate species. In 1881, English biologist Dr St George J. Mivart commented that the noted American zoologist Prof. Daniel G. Elliot regarded this felid simply as a variety of the known cheetah species (curiously, Mivart ascribed the presence of a stripe to one side – but not both sides – of the woolly cheetah's muzzle when describing this feline form in his book The Cat, a feature not mentioned by Sclater, and in any event highly abnormal, thereby confusing the issue even further).
Dramatis personae in the woolly cheetah saga: Philip L. Sclater (public domain), Dr St George J. Mivart (Wellcome Images/Wikipedia – CC BY 4.0 licence), and Prof. Daniel G. Elliot (public domain)
By then, London Zoo's specimen had died, and Elliot's opinion received support from the discovery by eminent mammalogist Oldfield Thomas of the then British Museum (Natural History) – now known as the Natural History Museum – that this cat's skull did not differ from that of any other cheetah.
On 4 November 1884, Sclater recorded in the PZSL a woolly cheetah skin sent to him by the Reverend G. Fisk, again obtained from Beaufort West. In comparison with the zoo specimen, this example was more distinctly spotted, less densely furred, and rather smaller in size. Reverend Fisk believed that these differences were due to the specimen being a female, an explanation accepted by Sclater, who felt that this new skin consolidated his opinion concerning the woolly cheetah's separate status. The rest of the scientific world, conversely, remained unconvinced, so that since then it has been regarded as merely an unusual variant of the typical cheetah species.
The woolly cheetah may indeed be nothing more surprising than an atypical colour morph – perhaps a partial albino, as suggested by king cheetah researcher Lena Bottriell and felid geneticist Roy Robinson, or an erythristic version, as opined by Jackson and Layard. At the same time, Sclater's more radical views can also be appreciated, because this cat form differs from the typical cheetah not only in colour and markings but also in fur density and even in relative limb length. Simple colour variants do not generally exhibit such pronounced differences as these from normal individuals of the same species. Its shorter limbs suggest a non-cursorial life - could it possibly have been a forest form?
It is worth noting that a 'lion-like forest cheetah' known as the kitanga was described in the 20th Century's early years to Major G. St J. Orde-Brown by the Embu natives of south-eastern Kenya (as recorded by Kenneth C. Gandar Dower in his book The Spotted Lion, 1937, chronicling Dower's own searches for another of Africa's mystery cats, the elusive marozi). Moreover, according to correspondent Owen Burnham who lived there for many years, a comparable felid has occasionally been reported from the little-explored forests of Senegal, West Africa, where this region's subspecies of the typical cheetah, A. j. hecki, is extremely rare.
The possibility of a cheetah form becoming modified for life in this type of habitat is by no means implausible. On the contrary, even the normal spotted form is not an exclusive denizen of the savannahs. This was well demonstrated in March 1983, when Lise Campbell spied a single cheetah at a height of 2.5 miles in the vicinity of the Sirimon Track in the moorland zone of Mount Kenya. She had a second sighting later that day of what may have been the same animal, even higher, amidst the tufted high-altitude grass, and documented her observations in an East African Natural History Society Bulletin communication (May-June 1983).
As for the woolly cheetah: according to mammalogists Daphne Hills and Dr Reay Smithers in their Arnoldia Zimbabwe paper of 1980 (concerning the king cheetah), this odd form no longer occurs in Beaufort West. Presumably, therefore, it is extinct, and the chance to investigate further its precise taxonomic status similarly lost. Or is it? The Natural History Museum owns the skin of London Zoo's specimen – so now, with the ever-advancing techniques of DNA-based genetic analyses readily available to researchers, perhaps it may be possible to carry out some such tests upon small samples of this skin and finally reveal the precise genetic identity of the mystifying woolly cheetah.
This ShukerNature blog article is excerpted and expanded from my book Mystery Cats of the World.