Obviously I cannot confirm any of the details within the statement, so I will leave it to the readers to decide which "expert" opinion they would be more happy with. If we use Hayley Stevens criteria of "proof" we are still left with a lot of unanswered questions, and as such I will still be leaning more towards Lars Thomas' findings as it being a leopard rather than "A D"'s one of a dog. However, whilst I am happy to accept the hair being from a leopard, like Hayley I still don't think it is enough proof yet to claim the existance of a living leopard in Longleat Woods. More research is needed to be done in the location, and I hope the "Four-Teans" will continue to gather evidence in the location.
So, over to you, "A D"
Dear Highland Tiger,
I'd like to give you quick response to this whole hair issue. First let me address the issue of anonymity and why I chose to go down that route. The simple reason for this is that I am not actively involved in this whole "scene" and have no particular intention of becoming an active particpant (largely due to life being hectic enough as it is), beyond having spoken to Hayley on the issue. My reason for getting involved is that Righteous Indignation is one of the many podcasts I listen to each week (of multiple genres). Previously the presenters had requested that if anyone had any kind of relevant background they might be interested in getting advice. When I heard Hayley talking about the hair on the podcast I was interested so I contacted her on Twitter. This was my first involvement with Hayley, or indeed anyone involved with this whole thing.
Let me make it clear that I have no particular axe to grind on this thing. I actually find it entirely possible that there are "big cats" on the loose in the UK. I certainly don't consider it impossible. There are multiple incidents of non-native species making it into new ecosystems, whether through escape from private collections, dumping after a period of illegal ownership, or accidental travel with humans. That's why we have so many invasive species! Actually, had I found the entire thing a preposterous idea I wouldn't have bothered offering my opinion. It is entirely because that possibility exists that I was interested to see what evidence existed, to satisfy my curiosity.
It is not my position that this hair is conclusively not of leopard origin. Rather, my position is that this hair is not conclusive of anything, and in the absence of more substantial evidence there is no evidence to support the conclusion that this comes from a leopard or anything else for that matter. I do have significant concerns about the nature of the analysis. From what I can gather, those involved would certainly like to prove that there was a leopard. Whilst there is abolutely nothing inherently wrong with having person wishes (we all do!), it does create potential problems with interpretation of data. This is not a criticism that is being levelled soley in this case. Throughout science it is clear that researcher bias can, and ideed does, pose a significant level of interference with interpretation. In this instance a major problem comes from non-independent analysis of the hair and that, I believe, it was compared against only other known leopard hair. I also saw no record of these known hairs myself. This is poor analysis. The least that should have been done in this case is the hair being compared against reference hairs from other animals likely to be present in that environment. This means both wild animals (the most abundant obviously being rodents and the like) as well as more domesticated animals such as dogs. This should also have been done in a blinded way so that person conducting the analysis was unaware of which reference hair was which.
An individual hair is not a particularly vast data collection and to try and inflate it into more than it is is inappropriate. It is certainly not enough, by a very long way, to support the hypothesis of a leopard. An individual hair can not be judged to come from an animal to the exclusion of all other species. This is particulary true without DNA analysis. And of course that hair would still have to have had to hair root attached for DNA to be extracted from it. Hair itself carries no DNA. Even with a single root, you would have to be very careful with your protocols as low-yield extraction can be a tricky beast! If it goes wrong you either end up with no DNA or DNA that is of such low quality that downstream PCR-based analysis becomes next to impossible.
So, to reiterate, it is not my opinion that this conclusively disproves that there is a leopard here. I just argue that the evidence is too weak to be considered evidence of anything! In the absence of any compelling evidence, my natural inclination is toward the idea that this hair is far more likely to have come from a species that might be native or common to the area.
Regarding my "qualifications", I'm not interested in getting involved in a game of credential top trumps. But to give you a brief taste of my background I worked for 5 years on a candidate gene SNP study of the molecular genetic basis of epilepsy. I have also worked, briefly, as a microbiologist in industry (it was a job to get me through a patch, but it was not one I enjoyed!). I currently work in a microscopy unit where we do a range of cell and whole-tissue work. We work with simple model systems, such as yeast (S. cerevisiae and S. pombe) as well as mammalian and human cell lines. We also occasionally work with tissue taken from biopsy.
As you might imagine, my work keeps me busy and I have no interest in entangling my professional life with this, which is why I erred on the side of anonymity. I was just offering my opinion on the evidence. I realise that other people are more invested in this, which is why I was prepared to, at the least, prove I exist. Whether you wish to accept my "bona fides" is a matter for you. Whether you wish to believe me when I say that I was genuinely interested in seeing the strength of the evidence to satisfy my own curiosity is also a matter for you.
I strongly feel that it is important not to get carried away with this. By all means keep looking for evidence, and if you do find compelling evidence of a leopard then that would truly be exciting and I would definitely love to see a wild leopard without having to pay to go on safari! I just don't consider this hair to be anywhere near that level of support, and I have attempted to view it with an aim of scientific impartiality. In my view, over-egging the evidence is not justified, scientifically. I hope that just because we don't necessarily agree on our viewpoints, you will at least accept that I am sincere in what I am saying.
I hope that this has answered some of your questions. And just one final time, I chose the anonymity because this was just something I emailed Hayley about in the course of an evening with a bit of my down-time. Whilst I am happy to stand by my opinions and issue this reponse to explain my position, and I have tried to offer it to the best of my ability, I have no interest in getting deeply embroiled in this and I would be very grateful if this desire was respected.