Cryptozoology in southwest Western Australia; or ‘where have all the cougars gone?’

By Bill Bateman.  Cryptozoology is a strange subject – it literally means the zoology of ‘hidden’ or undiscovered animals.  Cryptozoology can include the scientific description of species like the okapi (Okapia johnstoni), a giraffe-like artiodactyl from central Africa, that first became known in the west in the late 1800s/early 1900s; or even the gorilla (Gorilla gorilla), which, although known through folklore and garbled reports from ancient Carthaginian and Greek travelers, was only scientifically described and given a binomial in the mid-1800s. However, cryptozoology is probably better known as a ‘pseudoscience’; the remit of ‘cranks’ who believe in the Loch Ness monster, in yetis, and sasquatch.

Between these two extremes lie examples, like the mysterious big cats of the UK.  ‘Big’ non-native cats do, or have existed in the UK.  Jungle cats Felis chaus, leopard cats Prionailurus bengalensis and Eurasian lynx Lynx lynx have all been shot or collected as road kill in the UK.  These were probably zoo escapes or releases of illegal pets.

There is also the possible continuing existence of thylacines (Thylacinus cynocephalus) in Tasmania, although we are still waiting for any convincing evidence of thlyacines surviving into the present day.

There have also been reports of leopards in Victoria.  A cougar was shot and photographed (Image below) in 1924 in St Arnaud, Victoria.  The Broken Hill lioness may be another example, as is the Beast of Buderim (Williams & Lang, 2010).

A 'cougar' from Victoria
The ‘cougar’ shot in 1924 in St Arnaud, Victoria, Australia.  The forced perspective in images such as this one mean that it could be a very big domestic cat.

Here in southwest Western Australia, we have the Cordering cougar, Nannup panther, Nannup tiger (thylacine?), and even the Nannup Thylacoleo.  Some of these sightings may be attributed to some very large feral cats stalking through the Australian bush.

 

A very large feral cat (ABC rural)
A very large feral cat captured in Australia (ABC Rural).  See also the article by Tetrapod Zoology on gigantic Australian feral cats.

Is there a Capel cougar?

Recently, I was briefly interviewed on local radio about the ‘Capel cougar’: a presumed large predator responsible for killing several sheep. Local opinion included that these sightings were attributed to descendants of cougars (Felis concolor) escaped from a circus, or brought here as pets by servicemen in the Second World War.

Even more interestingly, some people indicated that they believe  the sightings are of a local, highly cryptic, thylacine-type animal.  If it was a thylacine, then it has survived, completely unseen, since before European settlement of the region.  Thylacines did exist on mainland Australia, and a well-preserved specimen was found in a cave in the Nullarbor, thought to be over 3000 years old.

While we would love the thylacine to still be alive, and while it would be exciting to have leopards or puma out there in the bush, it is sadly true that we already have a large, predatory mammal capable of killing sheep here in southwest WA: dogs. It is difficult to differentiate between feral or stray dogs (Canis familiaris) and dingoes (Canis lupus dingo) (particularly because they cross breed with each other), but around Capel, where no dingoes have been recorded, it seems likely that the culprit was even closer to home: a domestic farm dog or a pack of dogs with the taste for mutton.

Maybe there is a Capel cougar.  Maybe there is a Capel thylacine.  However, there almost certainly are Capel feral dogs.

 

Williams, M. & Lang, R. 2010. Australian Big Cats: An Unnatural History of Panthers Strange Nation, Hazelbrook, NSW. ISBN 978-0-646-53007-9

 

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