The demand for traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) has negatively affected biodiversity for decades. With the WHO’s go ahead, things could get worse.
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Indian scientists from the Zoological Society of London and University College London have recently spotted six colour variations of the Asiatic golden cat in Arunachal Pradesh’s Dibang Valley. While ‘colour morphs’ aren’t unknown—Bhutan and China host two variations of the feline next door—it’s a first for such a small region to capture six shade colours in a single species. The near-threatened feline now wears golden, cinnamon, grey, melanistic and tightly rosetted coats.
The discovery was published on June 7 in Ecology, the journal of the Ecological Society of America. The researchers had originally set out to study human-wildlife interactions in Northeast India, but their camera traps accidentally recorded the shade range in what initially seemed to be different animals. It was later realised that it was all the same species. The ‘tightly rosetted’ coat is an entirely new colour morph sighting, named after the leopard-like rosettes on the animal’s grey coat.
Colour morphs are caused by genetic mutations, and take root via natural selection. Black panthers are a common example of colour morphed animals, as their ebony coats are melanistic (darkly coloured) variations of wild cats in the genus Panthera. Scientists believe the Asiatic golden cat’s morphs are for ecological benefit, allowing them to occupy habitats at different elevations and camouflage themselves while hunting prey.
It may also have been triggered by the cat’s carnivorous competitors; tigers (Panthera tigris) and clouded leopards (Neofelis nebulosa) also prowl Arunachal Pradesh. By themselves, the variations in the Asiatic golden cat cannot mean an instant species segregation, since the animals still interbreed. However, if behavioural differences prevent mating, it could kickstart the evolutionary process that births a separate subspecies.
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