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Page last updated at 15:50 GMT, Wednesday, 16 September 2009 16:50 UK
Elusive golden cat caught on film
by Matt Walker
Editor, Earth News

African golden cat (Profelis aurata)
Snapped by a digital infrared camera trap

One of the most elusive of all wild cats has been photographed deep in the jungle of Uganda.

Three images of a wild African golden cat were taken by a digital infrared camera trap set up by biologist Dr Gary Aronsen of Yale University in the US.

To his knowledge, just one other image of a wild African golden cat has ever been published.

Although taken in black and white, the new photos reveal this particular golden cat actually has a dark coat.

The cat is so rare few researchers working in African forests have seen it.

There is very little known about this felid, what kind of habitat it prefers etc
Dr Gary Aronsen

A colleague of Dr Aronsen's has worked for years in Kibale National Park, Uganda where the photos were taken, and has seen the animal only once, while Dr Aronsen knows of only one other published photograph of the cat in the wild, taken in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

"Anecdotal evidence suggests that while many villagers and locals may see the cat crossing roads, or maybe raiding domesticates, there are just not that many researcher sightings. We're usually looking for other things."

As a result, says Dr Aronsen, there are no direct field studies of the African golden cat (Profelis aurata).

Most studies that have been done are based on scat analyses.

"There is very little known about this felid, what kind of habitat it prefers etc," he says.

"It is spread across equatorial Africa, but it is cryptic and we presume solitary, making observations few and far between."

African golden cat (Profelis aurata)
The cat's distinctive coat markings are clearly visible (courtesy of G. P. Aronsen, Department of Anthropology, Yale University)

The African golden cat is a medium-sized cat, about 80cm long, that lives within forest across central and west Africa.

Despite its name, its fur colour is variable and it can be either spotted or not.

"The golden cat is melanistic, meaning that its colour varies over its lifetime, and across the continent," explains Dr Aronsen.

"I was disappointed that the cameras could not give me more data on [the cat's] colour, but the images suggest it is a 'dark phase' cat."

It is one of two cat species known to live within Kibale National Park, the other being the serval.

Servals are slim, long cats, while the golden cat is muscular and compact.

African golden cat (Profelis aurata)
The cat moves off (courtesy of G. P. Aronsen, Department of Anthropology, Yale University)

Dr Aronsen originally set up his camera trap to take images of primates living within the park.

"For the most part, the cameras capture amazing images of elephants, monkeys, chimpanzees, duiker and buffalo. The cameras also can record movies, so you can see multiple animals in a group, such as chimpanzees."

But he was still surprised when it recorded three separate images of a golden cat, which are published in the African Journal of Ecology.

"That meant that the camera was located within the cat's core area," he says.

The images were taken in an old-growth forest patch located within a place called Mainaro, which is a patchwork of old-growth, regenerating, and replanted forests, Dr Aronsen explains.

"Given that three images were captured within an old-growth patch, I'd say that the Kibale golden cats may prefer this habitat. But the range of any cat is large, and so they can go anywhere to hunt."

Aronsen himself saw his first and only wild African golden cat this summer, when one looped along in front of his motorbike as he travelled to conduct field work in a remote area of replanted forest.

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