EUROPEAN WILDCAT: Felis silvestris, silvestris group

Wildcat pic2 Description and Behavior
The forest wildcats of Europe and western Russia are grey-brown in coat color, with bushy, blunt-ended tails and a well-defined pattern of black stripes. Although they tend to look bigger than African wildcats because of their thick winter fur, an extensive series of weight measurements have shown that they are not: males weigh an average of five kg and females 3.5 kg (Condé and Schauenberg 1971). However, the authors did record strong seasonal weight fluctuations ranging up to 2.5 kg, with heaviest male weights recorded from September to the end of February (France).

The fossil record suggests that the European form of the wildcat is the oldest, descended from Martelli’s cat (Felis [silvestris] lunensis) about 250,000 years ago (Kurtén 1968). Molecular analysis indicates that the African wildcat diverged from the European form only about 20,000 years ago (Randi and Ragni 1991). This is corroborated by the fact that fossil specimens of African wildcats are only known with certainty from the late Pleistocene (Savage 1978). The domestic cat was derived from African wildcats between 4-8,000 years ago (Clutton-Brock 1981, Davis 1987, Kitchener 1992). Hybridization is common between European wildcats and domestic cats, and Kitchener (1992) discusses characters (pelage pattern, gut length, skull morphology) that can be used to distinguish reliably pure wildcats from hybrids or domestic tabbies. Many hybrids are more like wildcats in size and morphology than domestic cats: perhaps there is differential survival of hybrid forms in the wild that favors larger cats. Large black cats observed in Scotland (“Kellas cats”) and the Caucasus (Satunin 1904, Aliev 1973) are probably introgressive hybrids, with variable proportions of wildcat genes (Kitchener and Easterbee 1992). Black forms (melanistic) have never been recorded in wildcats in Europe, despite being a common coat color mutation in other species of felid (Clark 1976, Robinson 1976, Todd 1977).

As with other wildcats, rodents are the staple of their diet across most of their range (Lindemann 1953, Novikov 1962, Nasilov 1972, Sladek 1973, Condé et al. 1972, Ragni 1978, Habijan and Dimitrijevic 1979, Hewson 1983, Stahl 1986, Riols 1988, Fernandes 1993, Ionescu 1993). However, rabbits comprise the major prey where they occur, as in central Spain (Aymerich 1982), and an agricultural area in north-eastern Scotland (Corbett 1979). Birds (both passerine and ground-dwelling) are of secondary importance (B. Ragni, P. Stahl in litt. 1992). The composition of the diet shows only minor seasonal variations: rabbits or rodents are the major year-round food items. No one species of rodent is preferred (Stahl 1986), but wildcats sometimes prey selectively on rabbits. In north-eastern Scotland, for example, juvenile rabbits were taken in the spring birth season, and adults in autumn-winter, when myxomatosis was most virulent in that age class (Corbett 1979). Wildcats will also scavenge food and cache their kills, especially in winter (A. Kitchener in litt. 1993).

In western Scotland, Scott et al. (1993) found that wildcats were predominantly nocturnal, travelling over 10 km per night to forage on open ground near the coast or around farms and villages, and resting by day in thickets or young forestry plantations. Daytime activity is usually correlated with absence of human disturbance (Stahl 1986, Genovesi and Boitani 1993).

Wildcats can live in very wet, swampy areas (usually among the last types of habitat to be modifed by humans). N.K. Vereshchagin (in Heptner and Sludskii 1972) describes how, when lowland forest is seasonally inundated in the Caucasus mountains, wildcats live in trees for weeks, feeding on rats taking refuge there.

© 1996 IUCN - The World Conservation Union

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