Woolly Cheetah

The woolly cheetah no longer exists. They were shot rather than captured. If the woolly cheetah was a different species of cheetah we will never know. When they were in existence some people thought they were a different species while others thought they were the same species but subject to a genetic mutation which caused them to have thicker bodies and stouter limbs than normal cheetahs. They also had, as the name suggests, dense woolly hair especially on the tail and neck where it created a ruff (like the Maine Coon cat) or a mane of sorts like a lion.

Woolly cheetah
An illustration of the woolly cheetah by Joseph Smit in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, 1877. Picture in the public domain.
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In 1877 the London Zoo recorded the arrival of a new type of cheetah. It had come from the Beaufort West region of South Africa. It was discovered by the English zoologist Philip Sclater I believe. In 1878, a second woolly cheetah was reported; not living but as a preserved specimen in the South African Museum. In 1884 the skin of another woolly cheetah was obtained from the Beaufort West region. It had more distinct spots and the cheetah was smaller.

By the late 1880s trophy hunters had extirpated the woolly cheetah in the wild. The Wikipedia authors suggest that all the woolly cheetahs of that era might have been the offspring of a single couple born around 1875. There may have been more than one generation. We don’t know and today this is of historical interest only because as mentioned, this variant of cheetah has vanished.

Dr. Morris states in Cat World that it had shorter legs, a heavier body and a thicker tail than the common cheetah. Its coat was unusual. The fur was much woollier than normal. Instead of the black spots the cat was covered with tawny-coloured blotches. The cheetah’s characteristic black lines that run from the corner of the eyes down the side of the nose were absent.

It was named the woolly cheetah (Felis lanea at first and later Cynaelurus laniger). It was soon rejected as a variety of the common cheetah. Since then, it has not been accepted as a separate species of cheetah. This is despite the fact its anatomy was clearly quite different from the common cheetah’s and the difference was not merely about the longer fur.

As mentioned, the longer fur made the pattern less distinct. You can see this effect with domestic purebred cats when the markings of longhaired cats are less distinct than those of shorthaired cats because of the blurring effect of the longer fur.

Longhair in domestic cats is due to a recessive gene. Sarah Hartwell, a feline geneticist, suggest that the same woolly haired gene may be present in the current cheetah gene pool. It is simply not expressed in terms of seeing its effects in the anatomy of a cheetah. It is recessive and dormant.

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