King Joffrey, fictional bad guy in Game of Thrones, had a cat?
Perhaps, but it wasn’t this one, whose name has a real-life background story.
In 1844, French naturalists Alicide d’Orbigny and Paul Gervais decided to name a small spotted South American cat after one of two famous zoologists at the time who were called “Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire” (that’s the last name).
The question is, which one?
- Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, who gave the jaguarundi its scientific moniker in 1803?
- His son Isidore, who formally described Asia’s rusty-spotted cat and flat-headed cat in 1831?
Most online sources that I checked say it was the father that d’Orbigny and Gervais had in mind, but they don’t cite any authoritative source.
It probably was Etienne, though:
- He was an expert in Latin American small cats
- He had the academic standing to disagree publicly with Georges Cuvier, one of the greatest Western scientists ever (Cuvier is standing in the background in this cartoon; clearly the editors supported his side of the argument)
- Last but definitely not least, Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire died in 1844, making this an appropriate time to honor him.
Throughout it all, the newly named Leopardus geoffroyii went about its business in southern South America, not at all impressed with its new status as part of humanity’s scientific world view.
- Small triangular patches on either side of the muzzle. There’s more than one little spotted cat in South America, but only Geoffroy cat has these marks.
- The “wild” part of a wild-domestic hybrid cat breed called the Safari Cat. This turn-of-the-21st-century breed isn’t listed in any of the major cat registries today. I don’t know what happened to it, as other wild-domestic hybrids like the serval-based Savannah Cat and Bengal (Asian leopard cat) are still around.
- Natural hybridization with tiger cats in southern Brazil. As we’ll see next week, these little tiger cats — Leopardus tigrinus (a/k/a the oncilla) and L. guttulus (which was considered an oncilla subspecies until recently) — aren’t related to Big Tony; rather, they’e very close relatives of Geoffroy cat. However, they also exchange genes with the pampas cat, a slightly more distant relative that also lives in this roughly 60-mile-wide hybrid zone in Brazil’s southernmost state. ((Johnson et al.; Trigo et al.) And some of these hybrids are fertile! Evolutionary biologists and other experts who want to understand how species form are fascinated by this — plants hybridize on their own all the time, but few examples from the animal kingdom have been found yet. Cats, while difficult to sample genetically in the wild, are very good subjects because today’s members of family Felidae are newcomers (in terms of geologic time) and their genomes still have a lot in common. This makes changes from feline hybridization and species evolution causes a little easier to find. (Anderson and Stebbins; Barton and Hewitt; Dowling and Secor; Li et al.; Martin and Jiggins; Seehausen; Trigo et al.)
- Intensively hunted during the fur trade peak. This one is depressing. Let’s just do one of the many statistics from that era: 157,789 Geoffroy cat pelts were exported from South America between 1979 and 1980 — that’s the official count. Another 102,000 should probably be included, which were part of finished garments. (Freer) At one point, Geoffroy cat pelts were the second most frequently traded, after bobcats! The good news is that this dropped dramatically from 1988 and is no longer happening on a commercial scale, though conservationists note a few skins are still traded illegally. (Cat Specialist Group; Pereira et al.; Sunquist and Sunquist)
- Today, probably the most common cat in southern South America’s temperate zone. That is, as long as ocelots aren’t present. The “ocelot effect” makes smaller cats stay away, probably out of fear of the large ocelot. (de Oliveira et al., 2010) Other than that, the Geoffroy cat is fairly common, unlike many small South American cats in the temperate zone. This planetary climate zone extends from roughly 23 degrees South down to the Antarctic Circle. Factoring out regional effects from the Andes and other different geography, summers and winters in this part of South America resemble those of the southeastern and central United States. And little L. geoffroyi prowls through it all. A study by Cuyckens et al. even suggests that the Geoffroy cat may be expanding its range by taking advantage of human-altered environments! (Caruso et al.; Cat Specialist Group; Macdonald et al.; NOAA; Pereira et al.; Sunquist and Sunquist; Wikipedia, 2019a)
This information is from the Cat Specialist Group, except where noted.
- Weight: 7 to 13 pounds
- Body length: 17 to 35 inches
- Tail length: 9 to 16 inches
- Coat: Background color varies dramatically from gray to tawny brown, with light-colored belly fur. Early researchers identified four subspecies based on different looks and changes in body size; more recent research indicates that Geoffroy cat may be a single species with a spectrum of appearances over its range (technically, a “cline”). (Kitchener et al.; Oliveira do Nascimento) Melanistic — all black — Geoffroy cats exist, too. More typically, small black spots cover the cat’s fur and often coalesce into a few dark leg bands. The tail is ringed. In addition to those distinctive triangular facial patches, this little cat also sports two cheek stripes, as well as dark lines over the top of its head and down the back of its neck. (Cat Specialist Group; Sunquist and Sunquist)
- Litter size: 1 to 3
Where found in the wild:
From southern Brazil through Argentina down to the Patagonian tip of South America, as well as in neighboring parts of Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, and far southern Chile.. (Cat Specialist Group; Freer)
- Range of environments: From sea level up to around 11,000 feet in the eastern Andes, the Geoffroy cat lives in many different environments, including pampas, marshes, a variety of forest types, savanna, arid steppes, other dry ecosystems, and even Monte desert and semidesert. These can be either wilderness or disturbed by human activities. A computer modeling study (Cuyckens et al.) suggests that changes in temperature with the seasons, mean temperature during the coldest part of the year, and the amount of annual precipitation are the major factors behind this cat’s presence in various areas. Geoffroy cats even get up into the subtropics a bit, though not much farther than southern Brazil, but they have never been seen in the tropical rainforest. While comfortable in open areas, Geoffroy cats seem to prefer dense cover. They’re good climbers, but trees seem to be their social platforms. Scent-mark latrines are “posted” in the crook of a tree, while the cats spend their hunting and resting hours closer to the ground in thick grass and marshy areas.
- Prey base: Mostly rodents and birds, as well as the occasional amphibian or reptile. In some places, birds and hares make up a large part of the diet. Another menu item is fish; Geoffroy cats are so good at this that some locals call them the “fishing cat” (not to be confused with the true fishing cat of Asia).
- Example of guild: Geoffroy cats share most of their range with the pampas cat. How these similar-sized felines coexist isn’t well understood. Pumas are out there, too, and do prey on smaller cats; no wonder Geoffroy cats have been observed moving into more open spaces when a puma is around!
A study by Freer in southern Chile and Argentina identified members of three carnivore families: foxes (Canidae); Geoffroy cats, kodkods (another close relative), pampas cats, and pumas (Felidae); and otters, weasels, mink, and grison (Mustelidae).
Just as a side note per de Oliveira et al. (2010), Geoffroy cats prey on skunks, weasels, and grison.
That shows how tough these small cats are — while weasels and skunks are mean fighters, the grison is Latin America’s version of the wolverine!
In terms of how cats shared their environment, Freer noted that the kodkod stayed in temperate rainforest; the pampas cat was usually found in grass and shrubland; and both the puma and the Geoffroy cat used a variety of habitats.
The daily commute?
Least concern. This is good news, especially in light of the bad old days of the fur trade, but there are still some concerns. The Cat Specialist Group and red-listing agency go into detail about these.
Featured image: Vladimir Wrangel/Shutterstock.
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