Thursday, 23 August 2007

Britain’s secret wildlife – two new species of lizard, Alien Big Cats

Weird Weekend's Friday evening session (Friday 17 August, see below) was kicked off by Jon McGowan, who says he has seen puma cubs playing in a deserted quarry in Wales – twice. He’s also been on the trail of two new types of lizard on the Bournemouth cliff tops. Whether or not they are native is not clear. Britain officially has four species of lizard - the common lizard, the sand lizard, the wall lizard and a legless lizard - the slowworm. The wall lizard is found in the Isle of Wight, Sussex and Dorset, and has a more boring brown colour than continental variants.
In the 1970s, there was the discovery in Bournemouth of brighter wall lizards. They could have bred with the brighter coloured ‘races’ (variants) of continental wall lizards, that may have been introduced. These wall lizards live in the unusual environment of the cliff heathlands of Bournemouth.
The Bournemouth wall lizards have a black head, like a Northern Italian variant. This type is now common on the Bournemouth cliff. There are also a yellowish Bournemouth variant that doesn’t match any of the 30 or so races and 20 recognised species of continental wall lizard. McGowan thinks these yellowish version must have originated from pet lizards that had been released. Female lizards in all their varieties are generally not colourful, but in Bournemouth they are.
Another species not generally accepted to live in England is the Western green lizard, is also seen in the tiny area around Bournemouth. It’s very large, typically 35-45cm, with one example found at 49cm. They are much larger than sand lizards. Western green lizards were first described 120 years ago. They are green, unlike other UK lizards.
Some of the ones seen at Bournemouth could be of another species, the Eastern green lizard. They were seen for a couple of years, then they disappeared in a very cold winter. The contemporary Western green lizards have probably been reintroduced into the area sometime in the last 120 years.
On the subjects of Alien Big Cats (ABCs) in Britain, McGowan says that there definitely seem to be some ‘mega-sized’ domestic cats out there that have gone feral and evolved to a giant size, as they are known to have done in Australia. There are some footprints in Britain that are almost the size of a leopard’s, but with domestic-cat footprint characteristics.
McGowan has himself seen a Scottish wildcat in Dorset. ‘Small zoos keep them and they breed prolifically,’ some of them are clearly being released, as there are more and more sightings of them over a bigger and bigger geographical range in England.
McGowan’s own study of (known) big cats on heathland in India shows that several different species of big cats share the heathland, and they all find their own niches in it.
Cats could easily survive in a cool climate like England’s. They like cool climates. They suffer in climates of over 80 degrees in Asia and Africa. Ocelots live in mountains in the wild, where they grow longer fur. Several ocelots have been shot in the UK, with photographs of the shot carcasses taken.
‘Cats are masters of disguise, cats can keep themselves hidden,’ says McGowan. In Johannesburg, something was coming down from the mountains and killing dogs – they put out six traps in a night and caught six leopards.
Chris Moiser, of the group Big Cats in Britain, turned up late for his Alien Big Cats talk but by way of apology explained he’d been buying a zoo – Tropiquaria in Minehead. Mr Moiser has been acclimatizing to ‘First Gibbon,’ a rescued young gibbon whose loud whoops he suspects are not actually the usual gibbon calls, but his impression of the sirens of the ambulances that frequently speed past the main road next to the zoo on their way to Minehead Hospital.
When he eventually got to give his report on behalf of Big Cats in Britain, Mr Moiser revealed there have been several Alien Big Cat (ABC) reports from Cornwall over the past year, and that near Lyton, a big ram, with a reputation for chasing away dogs, had been savaged by something and received ‘horrendous’ wounds. South of Bodmin, a Shetland pony was killed by long vertical slash down its side, which seems to have been done by ‘human agency’ not an ABC. There are plans for a Beast of Bodmin theme park, which will feature a live black leopard. In Lodiswell, there has been a sighting of a black cat, which bared its ‘small, sharp teeth.’ In Leicester there have been raccoon sightings, with raccoon sounds recorded. At the Biblical-themed Noah’s Ark Zoo near Bristol, ‘the only zoo closed on a Sunday,’ two sheep were lost from the petting zoo despite a five-meter high fence around the property.‘ Paw mark slashes’ were found on a slashed horse in a field next door to Exmouth Zoo.
Moiser commented on the recent series of five or six photos of the mystery Beast of Dartmoor, some of which appeared in The Sun and Fortean Times. It was variously interpreted as a bear, a wolverine, a pony, or even a shape-shifting animal that changed from one animal to another from one shot to another. The CFZ outed it as a fairly obvious Newfoundland dog, ‘like the one in the old Dulux paint adverts’, according to Mr Downes. Moiser noted that ‘slightly eased quarantine regulations mean we’re beginning to see unfamiliar ‘giant’ European (continental) dog breeds’ that could be mistaken for something else. The Beast of Dartmoor was shot with a camera-phone designed for close ups, and we may be seeing weird distortions on out of focus camera phones of a sort that we’re not yet used to interpreting as just that, because camera phones are still quite new.
Moiser also reported the release of data following Paul Lyons’ Freedom of Information Act request on how much ‘licensed keeping of exotic cats’ has been granted permission, which revealed that number to be an alarming high, around 800 in the UK.

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