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Discovery of first active breeding den of Chinese mountain cat (Felis bieti)

Xue-Song Han Huai-Qing Chen Zheng-Yi Dong Ling-Yun Xiao Xiang Zhao Zhi Lu

Xue-Song Han, Huai-Qing Chen, Zheng-Yi Dong, Ling-Yun Xiao, Xiang Zhao, Zhi Lu. Discovery of first active breeding den of Chinese mountain cat (Felis bieti). Zoological Research, 2020, 41(3): 341-344. doi: 10.24272/j.issn.2095-8137.2020.039
Citation: Xue-Song Han, Huai-Qing Chen, Zheng-Yi Dong, Ling-Yun Xiao, Xiang Zhao, Zhi Lu. Discovery of first active breeding den of Chinese mountain cat (Felis bieti). Zoological Research, 2020, 41(3): 341-344. doi: 10.24272/j.issn.2095-8137.2020.039

首个荒漠猫(Felis bieti)活跃繁殖洞穴的记录

doi: 10.24272/j.issn.2095-8137.2020.039

Discovery of first active breeding den of Chinese mountain cat (Felis bieti)

Funds: This study was supported by Chindu County Government, Chindu Environment Protection & Forestry Bureau, Administration Bureau of Three-River-Source National Park and “One Yangtze” Project of Huatai Securities (HTSC)
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出版历程
  • 收稿日期:  2019-12-19
  • 录用日期:  2020-04-08
  • 网络出版日期:  2020-04-08
  • 刊出日期:  2020-05-01

Discovery of first active breeding den of Chinese mountain cat (Felis bieti)

doi: 10.24272/j.issn.2095-8137.2020.039
    基金项目:  This study was supported by Chindu County Government, Chindu Environment Protection & Forestry Bureau, Administration Bureau of Three-River-Source National Park and “One Yangtze” Project of Huatai Securities (HTSC)
    通讯作者: E-mail: xiaolingyun@shanshui.org

摘要: 荒漠猫(Felis bieti)主要分布在青藏高原东缘,是中国特有的两种食肉动物之一。作为猫科动物中最不为人知的物种之一,荒漠猫自其1892年科学发现后仍缺乏足够的野外生态学研究工作。2018年9月中旬,在位于三江源地区青海省玉树州称多县嘉塘草原进行野外调查时,发现了一个由一只荒漠猫成年雌性及其两只幼崽栖息的繁殖洞穴。基于在随后五个月中的红外相机监测、样线调查以及社区访谈工作,累计在嘉塘草原内发现荒漠猫繁殖洞穴五处(2017年2处属1个家庭,2018年3处属1个家庭),以及33笔巢外个体目击记录。此外,通过荒漠猫尾部花纹的差异,确定嘉塘草原及周边区域至少存在5只荒漠猫个体生存。

English Abstract

韩雪松, 陈怀庆, 董正一, 肖凌云, 赵翔, 吕植. 首个荒漠猫(Felis bieti)活跃繁殖洞穴的记录[J]. 动物学研究, 2020, 41(3): 341-344. doi: 10.24272/j.issn.2095-8137.2020.039
引用本文: 韩雪松, 陈怀庆, 董正一, 肖凌云, 赵翔, 吕植. 首个荒漠猫(Felis bieti)活跃繁殖洞穴的记录[J]. 动物学研究, 2020, 41(3): 341-344. doi: 10.24272/j.issn.2095-8137.2020.039
Xue-Song Han, Huai-Qing Chen, Zheng-Yi Dong, Ling-Yun Xiao, Xiang Zhao, Zhi Lu. Discovery of first active breeding den of Chinese mountain cat (Felis bieti). Zoological Research, 2020, 41(3): 341-344. doi: 10.24272/j.issn.2095-8137.2020.039
Citation: Xue-Song Han, Huai-Qing Chen, Zheng-Yi Dong, Ling-Yun Xiao, Xiang Zhao, Zhi Lu. Discovery of first active breeding den of Chinese mountain cat (Felis bieti). Zoological Research, 2020, 41(3): 341-344. doi: 10.24272/j.issn.2095-8137.2020.039
    • In mid-September 2018, during a field survey in Chiat’ung, Sanjiangyuan (Three-River-Source) Region, Tibetan Plateau, China, we discovered the first active breeding den of the Chinese mountain cat (Felis bieti), inhabited by one adult female and two kittens. Based on fieldwork over the following months, five breeding dens were discovered, and 33 sightings were recorded. In addition, at least five individuals were confirmed to inhabit this overlooked region, and much previously unknown information concerning this cat species and its ecology was revealed for the first time.

      The Chinese mountain cat is among the most elusive and endangered felid species in the world and is endemic to the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau, China (He et al., 2004; Nowell & Jackson, 1996). With a striped tail, hair-adorned ear-tips, and, unique among all wild cats, light blue pupils, the Chinese mountain cat is distinctive from the feral domestic cat (F. catus) and other congeneric species (Allen, 1938; Chen et al., 2005; Garcia-Perea, 2000; Grove, 1980; Kitchener et al., 2017; Liao, 1988; Sanderson et al., 2010). Since its discovery in 1892 (Milne-Edwards, 1892), very few field records or ecological studies have been carried out (Sanderson et al., 2010). To date, based on all known field information concerning the Chinese mountain cat, only four breeding dens and two temporary hiding burrows have been reported previously in northern Qinghai Province from 1975 to 1985 (Liao, 1988), all of which were deserted due to poaching. Therefore, our recent discovery of a breeding family provides crucial information that will help underpin future research and conservation of this poorly known felid.

      In the current study, the dens and cats were discovered on the southern grassy hills of Chiat’ung, a typical alpine meadow in the southeast corner of the Sanjiangyuan Region (Figure 1A). The meadow now serves as pasture for eleven villages of Tibetan herdsmen and is a perfect habitat for the plateau pika (Ochotona curzoniae), thereby attracting a great number of predators including the Tibetan fox (Vulpes ferrilata), red fox (V. vulpes), and Chinese mountain cat.

      Figure 1.  Study area, timeline of nursery process, and identified individuals of Felis bieti

      To monitor the nursery process, we set three camera traps beside the breeding dens (Figure 1A), with a programmed shooting sequence of two photos and one 30 s video with low trigger sensitivity. To better understand the habitat and to search for other possible dens, two transects totaling 26 km were surveyed (Figure 1A), with nine additional camera traps set beside potential cat burrows (Figure 1A). Moreover, we conducted household interviews in the nearby Tibetan communities to collect information concerning this population of Chinese mountain cat.

      After five months of monitoring the breeding dens, 7 555 photos and 2 996 videos of the family, as well as 29 photos and 16 videos obtained from four additional camera sites, were collected in Chiat’ung (Figure 1A). Based on these data, important information regarding the nursery process of the family was acquired. During the family’s time in the first discovered den (Den 2018-A; 16 September 2018–17 October 2018), they left twice for unknown reasons (Figure 1B), and on their last day in the den, the female was seen to nurse the kitten for the last time. After one week of field survey, the family were located in a second den (Den 2018-B) in the center of a wide valley only 670 m away, where they only stayed for four days after discovery (23 October 2018–26 October 2018; left probably due to disturbance by yaks). Subsequently, a third den (Den 2018-C) was discovered in mid-December on the other side of the hill at the sunlit top of the valley (13 December 2018–04 February 2019). The family remained here until the two kittens left the den on 24 December 2018, followed by the female in early February 2019 (Figure 1B). From the household interviews, we discovered that two more breeding dens from 2017 were located beneath Den 2018-C (2017-A, B; Figure 1A).

      All three dens in 2018 were exposed on the ground without cover (Supplementary Figure S1A–C), whereas the 2017 dens were covered with grass (2017-A; Supplementary Figure S1D) or rocks (2017-B; Supplementary Figure S1E). Each den possessed only one entrance, in accordance with descriptions from Liao (1988). The diameters of the entrances varied from 29 cm to 41 cm, with an average width at 34.6 cm.

      During monitoring, many Chinese mountain cat behaviors were observed for the first time (Figure 2). Generally, the adult female spent most of her time in vigilance, maintenance (e.g., stretching, licking, scratching, yawning), basking, nursing, feeding, and playing with the kittens. For the kittens, their time was mostly spent playing, basking, and observing.

      Figure 2.  Behaviors of adult female and kittens of Felis bieti (F: Female. K: Kittten)

      From the captured images, we could clearly determine kitten gender – i.e., one female and one male (Figure 1C). Kitten growth was also recorded by the camera traps. When the kittens were about four months old (in September; according to Sanderson et al., 2010 and Zhu et al., 2007), their bodies were relatively pale and body patterns were clearer, with five to six black rings on the tail; one month later (in October), the color became more yellowish and the ear-tips became longer; in December, their fur was almost the same as that of the adult, with body patterns faded and only three to four tail rings remaining clear (Figure 1DF).

      The congruity of the tail patterns throughout the kitten growth period makes it a perfect feature for individual identification of Chinese mountain cats – the patterns on their tails, especially the first three dark rings, remained constant from about four months of age. As a result, four individuals were identified in this area, including one adult female [1#] (Figure 1G), one female kitten [2#] (Figure 1I), and one male kitten [3#] (Figure 1J–K) from the above family, and one additional adult female [4#] (Figure 1H). Moreover, despite the lack of records, there should be at least one adult male [5#] who fathered the kittens, indicating the presence of at least five individuals in the area.

      Habitat preference of the Chinese mountain cat has not been studied in depth, although several descriptions have been made based on previous field observations (Chen et al., 2005; Liao, 1988; Yin, 2007). For breeding dens, Sanderson et al. (2010) concluded that these cats prefer “abandoned dens excavated by marmots or badgers” on south-facing slopes of “grasslands or bush-covered mountains”, which was confirmed by our observations. Chen et al. (2005) and Yin (2007) stated that the Chinese mountain cat prefers to inhabit alpine meadows. This could be explained in Supplementary Figure S2, i.e., when hiding in ungrazed winter pasture, the original and natural state of alpine meadows, the appearance of the cat would be perfect camouflage.

      Through household interviews, the two dens from 2017 were discovered close to a Tibetan herdsman’s house (Figure 1A). According to him, in July 2017, a female cat with four newborn kittens killed a Himalayan marmot (Marmota himalayana) and took over its den, which was only 120 m away from his house. Being devout Tibetan Buddhists, the family detested the cats for killing pikas in their yard, but pitying the kittens, they did not expel them until November. After being driven out, the cats moved to Den 2017-B, located only 110 m away from Den 2017-A (Supplementary Figure S2).

      Moreover, 33 sightings of the cats were recorded between September 2018 and February 2019, including one individual spotted in Sichuan Province by a local field ranger (Figure 1A). Considering the similarity of the landscape, there should be more individuals inhabiting this geographic continuum on the southeast edge of the Tibetan Plateau.

      As the only endemic felid in China, the Chinese mountain cat is assessed as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List based on its “likely” small population, “high likelihood” of fragmentation, and “probably declining” trend (Riordan et al., 2015). This indicates an urgent need to fill the huge knowledge gap about this species and its status. Therefore, the discovery of this population may provide a great opportunity for future investigation and conservation and allow us to learn about and better protect this secretive felid species.

    • Permission for field surveys in Chindu County, Qinghai Province was granted by the Chindu County Government, Chindu Environment Protection & Forestry Bureau, and Administration Bureau of Three-River-Source National Park.

    • Supplementary data to this article can be found online.

    • The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

    • X.S.H., Z.L., L.Y.X., and X.Z. designed the research; X.S.H., Z.Y.D., and H.Q.C. conducted the fieldwork; X.S.H., Z.Y.D., and H.Q.C. analyzed the data; X.S.H. and H.Q.C. drafted the manuscript; X.S.H. and Z.Y.D. produced the figures. All authors read and approved the final version of the manuscript.

    • We gratefully acknowledge local rangers Jihti, Tserdo, and Lulu for their effort in field investigations. In addition, we are grateful to Terry Townshend, Sandro Lovari, and Lu Zhang for improving the manuscript.

参考文献 (13)
补充材料:
ZR-2019-210 Supplementary Figure S1-S2.doc

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