Evidence of British Countryside's 'Big Cat': Remains of 'Devon Beast' Rediscovered

First Posted: Apr 25, 2013 09:20 AM EDT

The large cat that supposedly roams the British countryside in England has gained almost a mythical status. It's on par with the Loch Ness monster, Big Foot and New York City's sewer alligators. Yet now, researchers have discovered evidence that a large cat really has been wandering the Devon countryside--at least in the early 1900s.

The evidence itself came in the form of a mounted Canadian lynx that was rediscovered in a museum's underground storeroom. It was actually first mislabeled as a Eurasian lynx, which once roamed the British countryside and became extinct around the 7th century. Extensive study of the specimen revealed that it was the non-native cousin of the creature. More than twice the size of a domestic cat, the Canadian lynx was shot by a landowner in the Devon countryside in the early 1900s after it killed two dogs.

The Canadian lynx is actually a denizen of North America. It lives in four geographically distinct areas in the United States, including the Northeast, the Great Lakes States, the northern Rocky Mountains and the southern Rocky Mountains. It's generally a solitary animal, hunting and travelling alone; it prefers various forest types, including both young and old. Currently, only about 1,000 lynx exist in the lower 48 states.

So how did a lynx from North America journey across the ocean to the British countryside? It turns out that there was an increasing fashion for exotic-and potentially dangerous-pets at the time. It's possible that the Canadian lynx actually escaped from its enclosure before it began terrorizing the countryside. After examining the specimen's bones, researchers were actually able to conclude that the lynx had been kept in captivity long enough to develop severe tooth loss and plaque.

"This Edwardian feral lynx provides concrete evidence that although rare, exotic felids have occasionally been part of the British fauna for more than a century," said Ross Barnett, lead researcher, in a news release. "The animal remains are significant in representing the first historic big cat from Britain."

Previously, many believed that wild cats entered the British countryside following the introduction of the 1976 Wild Animals Act. Yet this latest find reveals that wild cats were introduced far earlier, though there's no evidence to suggest that they have actually been able to breed in the wild. Currently, Britain is without any native big cats.

"There have been enough sightings of exotic big cats which substantially pre-date 1976 to cast doubt on the idea that one piece of legislation made in 1976 explains all releases of these animals in the UK," said co-author Darren Naish in a news release. "It seems more likely that escapes and releases have occurred throughout history, and that this continual presence of aliens explains the 'British big cat' phenomenon."

The findings are published in the journal Historical Biology.

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