Corsica’s elusive ‘fox-cat’ is indeed a unique species, experts find

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A mysterious wild cat known to locals on the French Mediterranean island of Corsica as the “ghjattu volpe” (“fox-cat”) is indeed a unique species, genetic analysis has revealed. The study was undertaken by researchers with the French Office for Biodiversity (OFB) and the Claude Bernard University Lyon 1. These findings — alongside the tagging and tracking of the small ghjattu volpe population — will help to inform conservation efforts going forward.

Known from the remote forests in the north of Corsica, the fox-cat broadly resembles a domestic feline with a striped and tawny colouration.

However, they earned their name for their larger size — averaging around 35 inches from head to tail — and their tails, which are ringed and have a black tip.

The ghjattu volpe also sports wide ears, short whiskers, a dense and silky coat, dark hind legs and highly developed canine teeth.

It is believed that it lives in forest undergrowth because such affords protection from its main predator, the golden eagle.

In a press release, the OFB said: “The existence of a wild cat in Corsica locally called the ‘ghjattu volpe’… has been known to the inhabitants of Corsica for a long time.

“Since the 20th century, this population has been the subject of more or less precise — and sometimes even erroneous — descriptions.

“While it was recognised as a wild species by the agropastoral society of Corsica and by the prefectural institutions at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, its status has not ceased to be questioned until today.”

Back in 2019, Carlu-Antone Cecchini of the French National Office of Hunting and Wildlife told the AFP that “the fox-cat is part of our shepherd mythology.

“From generation to generation, they told stories of how the forest cats would attack the udders of their ewes and goats.”

The scientific study of the ghjattu volpe began in earnest in 2008, when one of the creatures was accidentally captured by a shepherd in the commune of Olcani in Corsica’s north.

Between 2011 and 2014, researchers were able to use camera traps to photograph several fox-cats and study their appearance.

This analysis suggested that they were distinct from both domestic cats and the subspecies of the European wildcat, Felis silvestris, which is seen in continental Europe.

Instead, the researchers speculated that they might be more closely related to Felis lybica — the African and Sardinian wildcat.

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In the new study, researchers were able to collect hair samples and analyse the DNA of 20 Corsican wildcats, either by humanely capturing live individuals in box traps baited with fish, or by analysing naturally dead or road-killed specimens.

During the study period, which ran from 2016 to 2020, scientists were aware of at least 16 living individuals making up the island’s ghjattu volpe population.

Before release back into the wild, the fox-cats were given ear punches to aid future identification, while some were also fitted with GPS tracking collars.

DNA samples were compared with similar taken from domestic cats [Felis catus] from Corsica and mainland France, wildcats from mainland France, and wildcats from Sardinia. The analysis confirmed that the ghjattu volpe is indeed its own species.

The OFB said: “Corsican wildcat samples appear genetically very different from continental wildcats and closer to, though different from, Sardinian cats.

“The domestic cats of mainland France and genetically close to those of Corsica and the cats of Sardinia are intermediate between the wild cats of Corsica and the domestic cats.

“These results suggest that the Corsican wildcat does not belong to the F. silvestris or F. catus [lineages].

“At a time when biodiversity is collapsing, the identification of a specific genetic entity in the Felidae taxon, a highly threatened taxon, is remarkable and essential to the implementation of appropriate conservation measures.

“It is only a first step towards a program which will have to specify the elements of ecology of this population — spatial and temporal variation of the density of the population and its causal factors, diet, use and selection of the habitat, evaluation of the risk of hybridization with the domestic cat.”

The full findings of the study were published in the journal Molecular Ecology.

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