Long ago, at the time of Noah and the Great Flood, the Manx cat sported a magnificent bushy tail, of which he was inordinately proud - so much so that, once aboard the ark, he took great delight in flaunting it in front of all of the other animals, especially the dogs, which he teased unmercifully. Inevitably, Noah spent quite a hectic time restraining them from inflicting grievous bodily harm upon their feline tormentor during the ark's 40 days afloat. When at last the ark came to rest on Mount Ararat, however, it did so with such a lurch that Noah was momentarily distracted, which provided one of the dogs with the perfect opportunity to take its revenge - by lunging forward and biting off the Manx cat's flamboyant tail with savage glee. And from that day forth, the Manx cat has been tailless.
TALES OF TAILLESSNESS
The above is just one of many memorable legends and myths that have sprung up over the years concerning the Isle of Man's famous feline inhabitant, and why it has no tail.
Incidentally, for my overseas readers, the Isle of Man is a smallish island situated in the Irish Sea between northern England and Ireland, and although part of the British Isles it is not a part of the United Kingdom; it has its own parliament, language, coinage, and postage stamps - plus its tailless cats.
Another Noah-inspired example of Manx cat myth tells of how, at the onset of the Flood, Noah was anxiously calling out to all of the animals to come aboard the ark as quickly as possible. Within a short time, most of the diverse multitude of species, breeds, and varieties were safely aboard, but with typical feline independence the Manx cat dawdled languidly until the very last moment. Only then did he leap onto the ark - but he did not leap quickly enough. For as soon as the cat landed aboard, Noah slammed the ark's heavy door shut - and inadvertently trapped the desultory cat's tail in it, which snapped off like a brittle twig and was soon washed away by the Flood.
Manx cat on an old Isle of Man picture postcard for tourists - Douglas is the Isle of Man's capital (public domain)
A very different but equally imaginative legend tells of how, in early days long past, Irish soldiers on the Isle of Man would slaughter great numbers of newborn cats here in order to cut off their tails, which they used as magical talismans for decorating their helmets and shields. As a result, the mother cats became so distraught by this wanton massacre of their offspring that as soon as they had given birth, they would immediately bite off their kittens' tails themselves, thus preventing them from being killed by the soldiers. Consequently, after many generations of such activity, this island's cats began to be born tailless.
This curious account owes rather more to Lamarck than logic - because it reiterates a long-discredited theory of heredity formulated in 1809 by French naturalist Jean Baptiste de Lamarck, and known as the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Lamarck postulated that physical characteristics acquired by an individual via external (i.e. non-genetic) means (such as taillessness caused by physical severing of the tail) could be transmitted to that individual's offspring. Needless to say, Darwin's evolutionary studies and Mendel's genetic researches ultimately exposed this theory as being wholly fallacious.
Isle of Man one crown coin depicting a Manx cat, issued in 1970 (© Raimond Spekking/Wikipedia - CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)
Among the more recent fables and folk legends regarding the Manx cat are ones that variously attribute its tail's absence to inattentive butchers, the sharp wheels of horse trams, and even exceedingly close encounters on the racing track with over-enthusiastic TT bikers!
FROM WHENCE CAME THE MANX CAT?
Other myths have sought to explain where the Manx cat originated. According to one such story, the Spanish Armada was carrying tailless cats aboard its vessels when one of the galleons was wrecked near the Isle of Man. Happily, its cats survived, and swam ashore, where they ultimately gave rise to the modern-day tailless Manx cats. An interesting account, if true; in reality, however, there does not appear to be any firm evidence to suggest that cats lacking tails were native to Spain at that time.
Another legend claims that the Manx cat's origin lies even further to the east - allegedly, the first such cats were tailless temple cats in Tibet, which were brought to the western world by travellers. Alternatively, according to yet another story, tailless cats reached Europe from Japan, transported on grain boats by the seafaring Phoenicians in order to keep in check the boats' rapidly multiplying populations of illegal rodent stowaways.
Japanese bobtail (© ようてい/Wikipedia - CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
Interestingly, there is indeed a near-tailless breed of Japanese cat, the Japanese bobtail, whose tail resembles that of a rabbit, and is little more than a fluffy pompom. However, whereas the mutant allele responsible for this latter cat's reduced tail is non-lethal homozygously (thereby enabling a pure-bred strain to be developed), the mutant allele creating the Manx cat's taillessness is usually lethal homozygously (i.e. only tailless cats heterozygous for the Manx allele survive – see below). As these two cats are thus genetically dissimilar for truncated tails, they clearly evolved independently of each other.
Ancient Malaysian and Chinese paintings portray tailless cats, further indicating that Manx-like specimens existed far beyond the Isle of Man in earlier ages. Moreover, there is a peninsula and village in present-day Denmark known as Reersø where tailless cats are quite common. No-one knows for certain where these cats originated, but according to local legend they are the descendants of cats that swam ashore following the shipwreck off Reersø’s coast a couple of centuries ago of a ship that had journeyed here from the Isle of Man!
RUMPY, RUMPY RISER, STUMPY, STUBBY, AND LONGY
Genetically, the absence or near-absence of a tail in the Manx cat is due to a highly penetrant, dominant mutant gene allele. If present homozygously (i.e. represented by two copies), this allele is generally lethal, inducing a number of severe skeletal and organ defects, and such individuals are usually spontaneously aborted before birth. Consequently, surviving Manx cats generally possess only one copy of the tailless allele (i.e. they are heterozygous for it).
Based upon the tail's length in proportion to the cat’s overall size, Manx cats can be divided into no less than five categories. Most extreme is the rumpy or dimple rumpy, in which the tail is entirely absent. Slightly less extreme is the rumpy riser (or, simply, riser), in which there is just the merest hint of a tail, represented by a cartilaginous bump or one or more vestigial immobile vertebrae hidden in the fur. The third category is the stumpy, in which a short but recognisable and usually mobile tail is present. These are the only categories of Manx cat that are permitted in Manx cat shows. However, there are also two further categories. The stubby has a tail that is roughly half the total length of an average, non-Manx domestic cat’s tail. And the longy or tailed Manx cat has a near-complete tail.
Not so well known as the familiar short-haired Manx cat is a long-haired version known as the cymric. This handsome breed was developed from long-haired individuals present in litters of normal short-haired Manx cats bred in Canada during the 1960s, but apart from the length of its hair it is identical to the latter cat form.
A cymric or long-haired Manx cat (© Robertlucien/Wikipedia – CC BY 3.0 licence)
RABBITING ON ABOUT CABBITS
It surely need not be said that the Manx cat's family tree does not contain any rabbits in it. Nevertheless, this has not prevented a breathtakingly bizarre example of contemporary folklore arising from this most ridiculous of premises.
Every so often, the media carries reports of curious beasts, often nicknamed 'cabbits', which are soberly claimed to be hybrids between cats and rabbits! Descriptions of these incredible crossbreeds state that they hop like rabbits, and photographs invariably depict recognisably feline creatures but with noticeably long hind legs and little if any tail at all.
Remarkably, such animals really do exist, but they are not descended from illicit liaisons between cats and rabbits. Instead, they are nothing more than Manx cats - because in addition to its famous tailless condition, this cat breed is also characterised by its disproportionately lengthy hind legs, which are longer than its front legs (and are rendered even more conspicuous by the lack or near-absence of a tail). This means that its back slopes upwards, rising conspicuously from its shoulders to its rump, and some individuals consequently move with an unexpectedly rabbit-like hopping gait.
As noted by Gerald L. Wood in his Guinness Book of Pet Records (1984), one such specimen was owned by Val Chapman from New Mexico, USA, and was exhibited as a bona fide cabbit in July 1977 at Los Angeles. Another specimen, reported in the 1950s from Ermelo in the Transvaal, South Africa, attracted the attention of British zoologist Dr Maurice Burton. He learnt via Prof. J.W. Groenewald of Pretoria University's Veterinary Dietetics Department that it was in reality a crossbreed between a Manx cat and a Siamese cat. It had been born in Arcadia, Pretoria, at the home of H.E. le Tendresse of the American Legation, but had later been sent to a Mr D. Patterson at Ermelo. Like the 'rumpy riser' variety of Manx cat, this cabbit sported only a very short stump for a tail.
Some 'cabbits' result from Manx cat x Siamese cat matings – painting by W. Luker, 1903 (public domain)
Unfortunately for science (and common sense), back in the mid-1800s the Manx cat's exceedingly superficial external similarity to a rabbit was nonetheless more than sufficient to inspire a writer called Joseph Train, from Castle Douglas in Galloway, Scotland, to claim in his book An Historical and Statistical Account of the Isle of Man (1845) that Manx cats were truly the products of matings between female cats and buck rabbits. He even included in his book a somewhat grotesque engraving of a Manx cat suitably distorted to correspond to the likely appearance of an offspring from this most unlikely of cross-pairings. And so it was that from an erroneous, misleading illustration and Train's accompanying account, the incongruous myth of the cabbit bounded into existence.
Yet even on an island distinguished by its emblematic three-legged men, its true-life four-horned goats (the brown-woolled Manx Loghtan), and its world-famous tailless cats, the reality of cabbits is most definitely beyond conception - in every sense!
Total trivia time: Way back in 1993, the very first pub quiz team that I was a member of was called the Manx Cats, because we were all bikers and one of the most famous motorbike races, the TT (Tourist Trophy), takes place annually on the Isle of Man. As a memento of our quiz team, I purchased the following Manx cat ornaments, which I still own today:
My sincere thanks to Lori Adams Nash for very kindly permitting me to include her photograph of her beautiful Manx cat Luna in the chapter of my book Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery from which this present ShukerNature blog article of mine is adapted.