Spotted: The African golden cat.

A digital-infrared camera trap set up in Uganda by a team of Yale researchers has captured rare images of the medium-sized carnivore, which goes by the scientific name Profelis aurata. The cat is one of the least understood of the felid species and has only been captured on film once previously.

“It is a very cryptic animal,” lead author Gary Aronsen GRD ’04 said in the Sept. 7 online edition of the African Journal of Ecology, where the study was published. “Almost nothing is known about it.”

Sightings are so rare, in fact, that there is only one other published photograph of the golden cat in its habitat, which was taken in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The cat is found in equatorial African tropical forests, but is a solitary creature and vulnerable to endangerment, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

“It’s kind of like seeing a jaguar in the Neotropics,” he said. “We all know they should be there in the forest, but seeing one is a rare treat.”

Every summer since 2006, a team of Yale researchers from the Anthropology Department has worked to establish a research site in Uganda, where they study primate ecology and behavior, forest structure and other animal life. Based at Mainaro in Kibale National Park in Uganda, the core team consisted of three researchers, including Aronsen, research affiliate Simone Teelen GRD ’05, who has since passed away, and Anthropology professor David Watts. For the first time this summer, a group of students were sent into the fields, including Angie Jaimez ’10.

The presence of the African golden cat could be a good sign for the forest’s health because predators leave or die off when forests are in a poor condition, Aronsen said.

“Even though it’s a smaller cat, the forest has to have enough resources to sustain it,” he said.

Although work on collecting data from the cat via scat analyses has not yet been performed in Kibale, data from other sites indicates that Profelis aurata consume rodents, small antelope and primates.

Part of the reason the cats are vulnerable to endangerment, explained Richard Thomas from the TRAFFIC wildlife trade monitoring network, is the bushmeat trade, which has led to “excessive harvest” practices among hunters.

Aronsen said he has seen fresh scat numerous times, suggesting that the cats are not particularly uncommon, but simply elusive.

But other signs point to the species’ scarcity. The cat is the largest predator in the park, which means it requires a large quantity of prey to sustain itself, Aronsen said.

The golden cat is not the only one of its kind in the Kibale region. Servals, long, thin cats completely different in bodily form from that of the golden cat, and small carnivores like weasels, also survive in the forest. Some believe the golden cat’s smaller size may have helped in its fight for survival in the wake of Ugandan deforestation, giving it an advantage over lions and leopards that used to roam the region.

The future of projects at Mainaro looks very promising, Aronsen said.

Initial work by the team has shown the Kibale site is suitable for long-term research, he said, adding that the team plans to continue their fundraising efforts to construct a lab and maintain a field staff.

With the work at Mainaro just now coming to light, Aronsen said new research on elephants and chimpanzees is in the works, and that the team hopes to continue bringing undergraduate and graduate students to the site to continue research on its ecology and animal life.