The cat-fox has been part of local legend for centuries, with rumors of an unknown predator attacking sheep and goats at night.
“We believe that it’s a wild natural species which was known but not scientifically identified because it’s an extremely inconspicuous animal with nocturnal habits,” ONCFS environmental technician, Pierre Benedetti, told AFP.
In 2012, lured traps were set by France’s National Hunting and Wildlife Office (ONCFS) to entice the cat-foxes to leave their DNA by rubbing their bodies against the lure, leaving tufts of fur behind that researchers could analyze.
After many failed attempts, the ONCFS captured their first live cat-fox in 2016 and have subsequently caught about a dozen more, tagging each of them with electronic chips to trace their movements around the Mediterranean island, with some traversing 3,000 hectares at elevations ranging from 300 to 2,500 meters. (985 to 8,200 feet).
Larger than a domestic cat, measuring 90 centimeters (35 inches) head to tip compared with its domestic counterparts (76 centimeters), with wide set ears, short whiskers with long, canine-like teeth, the ethereal hunter boasts a red-colored belly, and black rings around the tail with a black tip.
However, lest anyone get carried away, researchers have assured the public that it is impossible for a fox and cat to breed.
“It’s their size and their tail that earned them the name ‘cat-fox’ across the island,” Benedetti explained. It may not, in fact, be an entirely new species but rather a hybrid of two feline species, which may include the F. lybica sarda or Sardinian wildcat, creating a new subspecies.
Regardless of the hybridization history of the creature, researchers are aiming to have it both officially recognized and protected as a new species as soon as possible. Mystery remains about the animal’s diet, reproductive patterns, and its origins.