The Scottish Wildcat Is Now ... Basically Just a Cat

Over the last 7 decades, it has mated with domestic cats to the point of pushing it to extinction
By Polly Davis Doig,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 12, 2023 6:02 AM CST
The Scottish Wildcat Is Now ... Basically Just a Cat
A Scottish wildcat.   (Getty Images/davemhuntphotography)

For millennia, the Scottish wildcat prowled Great Britain, stalking prey and ignoring humans and its domesticated cousins alike. But as a study in Current Biology reports, that all changed in the 1950s and '60s, when disease killed off much of the rabbit population the wildcats depended on for food and humans took over much of their remaining habitat in the Scottish Highlands, decimating their ranks. As Science reports, their numbers could have hit as few as 30—forcing them to start hooking up with their kitty cousins. "If you have a population of wildcats that's being completely eradicated, those that are left are going to want to mate with something, and if the only thing that's around are domestic cats, that's probably what they're going to choose," says University of Oxford Professor Greger Larson, who worked on the study.

And what has happened in the past seven or so decades is pretty dramatic: In the mid-1950s, about 5% of Scottish wildcats' DNA markers resembled domestic cats'; fast forward to 1997, and that number hit 74%. As the Guardian puts it, the inter-mating has pushed the wildcat to the edge of extinction simply by being "swamped" by the genes of domestic cats. "Not only are we at risk of losing a species from Britain, we're potentially replacing it with hybrid and feral domestic cats that may be not as well adapted and may not perform the same ecological role in their habitat," says study author Jo Howard-McCombe of the University of Bristol and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland. "It is important to understand the history of this process, so that we can be better informed to manage that threat into the future."

All may not be lost: 160 Scottish wildcats exist in captivity, and only 18% of their DNA markers match that of domestic cats. The RZSS released 19 of them into a national park over the summer, far away from the Garfields of the world. That plan draws some skeptics, who believe that the Scottish wildcats are simply too diluted, and the population would be better served by pulling animals from thriving populations elsewhere in Europe. Still, says the head of the RZSS team, "We've got to start somewhere." (More wildcat stories.)

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