The mystery of Madagascar's forest cats

A forest cat is seen on a camera trap in Madagascar's Bezà Mahafaly Special Reserve.

(CNN)Madagascar is home to many unique species, including a variety of lemurs. But there's one species living in the island's forests that scientists hadn't quite been able to figure out until now: cats.

University of Colorado at Boulder anthropology professor Michelle Sauther has been studying primates and lemurs on the island nation in the Indian Ocean for 30 years. And during that time, she's seen a lot of cats in the forests.
But cats aren't native to Madagascar, which is one of the world's largest islands.
    "When I first started working in Madagascar, I noticed that these cats all seemed to look the same," Sauther said. "They were big, and they were always the same color."
    They're known as the "forest cats" of Madagascar, sharing straight tails and a "mackerel" tabby coloring that blends well with the forest. They also look different than the village cats that people keep as pets on the island.
    Local populations use various names in their languages to call them "ampaha," which translates to "cat run wild," or "kary" or "saka kary," both of which also suggest "wild cat."
    Over the years, scientists have speculated that the animals are truly domestic cats who have become wild or feral, or that they're an introduced wildcat or domestic-wildcat hybrid, according to a new study.
    The free-ranging forest cats have been found across the island in Ankarafantsika National Park; Bezà Mahafaly Special Reserve; Makira Natural Park; and the Masoala peninsula.
    Sauther and her colleagues wanted to study these cats to understand where they came from and how long they've been on the island. They set up cage traps with cameras and baited with live mice at the sites where the cats are known to live in the forests of western and southwestern Madagascar.
    But don't worry -- the mice were safely ensconced in their own comfy little cages with bedding and food.
    Altogether, the researchers captured three forest cats from the Bezà Mahafaly Spe