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NEW DELHI : Scientists have discovered six different 'colour morphs' of the Asiatic golden cat in Arunachal Pradesh, that may be the world’s greatest number of different-colored wild cat species ever reported in one area.

The findings indicate that the 'near-threatened' wild cat species which is native to north-eastern Indian subcontinent could become one of the most adaptable predator in Eastern Himalayas.

The study carried out by scientists from Zoological Society of London, an international conservation charity and University College London in forests across Dibang Valley in Arunachal Pradesh was published in Ecological Society of America’s journal Ecology.

Colour morphs are basically occurrence of two or more discrete colour forms of the animal within a population, due to a genetic mutation. For example- Black panther is a color morph of the common leopard.

These color morphs are not classified as different sub-species as they may live in the same area and even inter-breed. However, if they do not interbreed then this could represent the beginning of the evolutionary process into separate subspecies.

“According to evolutionary theory, if a colour morph is not beneficial for a species survival over time, it should die out in the population. The fact that we have so many different colour morphs persisting in Dibang Valley shows there must be some ecological advantages to the variety of colours," said lead author Dr Sahil Nijhawan, a British Academy Fellow at University College London.

Understanding how this phenomenon takes hold in a population could help scientists to understand how quickly species can adapt and evolve to changing environments. This would help scientists to gain better insight into the resilience capacity of the species to climate change or habitat degradation and destruction, which is also the reason for decreasing population of these species.

Asiatic Golden cat is a medium-sized wild cat native to north-eastern Indian subcontinent and is listed as 'Near Threatened' on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

According to the research team, the wide variation displayed in the cat’s coats enables them to occupy different habitats at different elevations from wet tropical lowland forests to alpine scrubs and provides camouflage while hunting different prey such as tropical pheasants or a rabbit-like mammal called Himalayan pika.

Scientists also suspect that the phenomenon is driven by competition with other big cats such as tigers and clouded leopards, as being dark colored in the mountains can help them conceal themselves from their prey making them better predators.

The findings have captivated the scientists, who highlighted the need for more such studies to understand the adaptation mechanism of these species.

“At least, now we know that Dibang Valley hosts the world’s most diverse range of colour morphs of a wild cat species ever reported in one site. But we are only just starting to understand this rare ecological phenomenon," he said.

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