Andean cats take their name from the mountains they live on in Argentina. But one group of these housecat-sized felines ditched the slopes of the Andes Mountains long ago to scratch out an existence in its foothills. With only 2,500 of these rare cats left, no one seemed to notice. Until now.

When a photo emerged of a couple “strays” outside their known habitat, WCS was on the case. They surveyed 11,500 square miles of the Patagonian Steppe. What they found were Andean cat scat, skulls, and skin.

After analyzing DNA taken from the samples, the researchers realized there was a genetically distinct Andean cat population living at elevations 8,000 feet below the rest of their species.

“These confirmed records show the lowest elevations ever reported for the Andean cat,” said WCS’s Andres Novaro, the study’s lead author. “Also, according to genetic studies underway led by Daniel Cossios, this new population appears to represent an evolutionary lineage distinct from the highland population.”

Andean cats usually tread at elevations of 10,000 feet. Similar to the snow leopard of the Himalayas, Andean cats use their long, bushy tails to stay balanced as they prowl steep, rocky slopes. Why would they leave terrain for which they were so well equipped? The scientists aren’t sure, but a rabbit-like rodent called a vizcacha may have helped them on their way.

Andean cats eat vizcacha more than anything else. These large rodents live in the Andean Mountains and the foothills, but evidence of wayward felines was only found where vizcacha are known to be. Here, the researchers also uncovered traces of three other vizcacha fans: the Geoffroy’s cat, the pampas cat, and the jaguarundi.

Along with vizcacha, unfortunately, Andean cats might run into trouble in their new home on the Patagonian Steppe. Conflict could result from goat herders who assume the cats endanger their livestock. Oil exploration activities in the area might also destroy habitat and build roads, putting these endangered felines in harm’s way. With new roads into remote areas often come poachers.

“Discovering a new population of Andean cats is an important finding for this elusive and rare species,” said Mariana Varese, acting director of WCS’s Latin America & Caribbean Program. “Determining the range of the Andean cat in the Patagonian steppe will provide conservationists with a foundation for later conservation plans.”