EUROPEAN WILDCAT: Felis silvestris, silvestris group


Wildcat pic2 Principal Threats
Hybridization between wildcats and domestic cats was first reported almost 200 years ago (Bewick 1807), and hybrids have been observed throughout Europe (Stahl and Artois 1991). However, the significance of the phenomenon is debatable. The importance of hybridization is diminished if F. silvestris is considered a polytypic species, and increased if the domestic cat is viewed as a separate species. Significant progress is being made in Europe towards defining the felid “units of conservation”, combining studies of morphology (including pelage characters) and genetics to clarify the relationship between wildcats and domestic cats (Balharry and Daniels 1993, Crovella et al. 1993, Fernandes 1993, Kitchener et al. 1993, Ragni 1993a,b, Puzachenko 1993b). It is likely that hybridization in Europe is more advanced than in other regions of the wildcat’s wide geographic range.

Suminski (1962, 1977) believed that “pure” forest wildcats were essentially extinct in Europe, having compared biological and morphological criteria among a large number of specimens. His findings have been disputed (Heptner and Sludskii 1972): Parent (1974), for example, believed that less than 2% of the Belgian population can be considered hybrid animals. Randi and Ragni (1986, 1991) concluded, on the basis of electrophoretic analyses and morphological data, that there is little probability of genetic flow between sympatric populations of forest wildcats and domestic cats.

Morphological and genetic studies of Scottish wildcats (Hubbard et al. 1992), on the other hand, point to frequent hybridization, although genetically distinct wildcats do remain in the remote areas of northern and western Scotland. The Scottish wildcat (F.s. grampia) was recognized by Haltenorth (1957) as the only valid subspecies in the silvestris group. Szemethy’s (1993) radiotelemetry study in Hungary of sympatric wildcats (n=5) and feral domestic cats (n=6) provides data on how hybridization occurs and spreads. The feral cats’ home ranges were smaller (0.8-1.7 km2) and located near farms; the wildcats’ home ranges were larger (1.5-8.7 km2) and avoided the farms. However, during the breeding season, male wildcats shifted their home ranges to cover the territories of female farm cats. Szemethy (1993) also noted that some feral cats were able to live independently of the farms, and adapted to wildcat social structure.

Stahl and Artois (1991) recommend prioritizing investigations into the extent of hybridization in regions where past conditions were conducive to it, i.e. where:

  • wild populations have shown a sharp drop in numbers over the past few decades;
  • wildcat colonization is recent;
  • wildcat populations are small and isolated;
  • human population density is markedly increased, with a concomitant growth in numbers of domestic cats; and
  • habitat transformation (intensive agriculture and forest plantations) is advanced.
Other threats highlighted by the survey of Stahl and Artois (1991) include habitat and population fragmentation; significant human-caused mortality, especially road kills; and vulnerability to diseases transmitted by feral cats. Clinical examinations by McOrist et al. (1991) suggest the possibility that feline leukemia virus (FeLV) occurs as a sustained infection in some Scottish populations, rather than as an occasional infection acquired from domestic cats. FeLV is transmitted readily among young cats via infected body fluids, such as during fighting or mating, and is almost always fatal. B. Ragni (in litt. 1993) believes that disease transmission, rather than hybridization, is the more serious threat resulting from the wildcat’s contact with its domesticated relative.






© 1996 IUCN - The World Conservation Union

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