Categorized as Least Concern by the IUCN, wildcats (Felis silvestris) are small cats that are found throughout most of Asia, Africa and Europe. These cats show a high degree of geographic variation. Especially in Asia they are found in southwest and central regions including India, China and Mongolia.
The direct ancestors of wildcats were Martelli’s wildcat (Felis lunensis), an extinct felid of the subfamily (Felinae), which lived in Europe as early as the late Pliocene. It was one of the first modern (Felis) species that appeared around 2.5 million years ago. It’s fossil remains have been found in Italy and Hungary, which suggests the modern European wildcat (Felis silvestris) may have evolved from this species during the Middle Pleistocene. This has also resulted in F. lunensis occasionally being considered a subspecies of Felis silvestris.
As far as fossil remains of the wildcats are concerned they are commonly found in cave deposits dating from the last ice age (from approximately 110,000 to 10,000 years ago) and the Holocene. Evidence suggest that the European wildcat, in its current form, first appeared 2 million years ago, and reached the British Isles from the mainland Europe approximately 9,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age. Scientists are of the opinion that at sometime during the Late Pleistocene (approximately 50,000 years ago) wildcats migrated into the Middle East from Europe, giving rise to the steppe wildcat phenotype. Within 10,000 years this wildcat spread eastwards into Asia and southwards to Africa.
Wildcat’s closest living relatives include the black-footed cat (Felis nigripes), the jungle cat (Felis chaus), the sand cat (Felis margarita) and the Chinese mountain cat (Felis bieti) (which may be a subspecies of wildcat). As a whole, the wildcat (jungle and leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis) included) represents a much less specialized form than the sand cat and manul (Otocolobus manul). However, wildcat subspecies belonging to the lybica group do have some specialization, namely in the structure of the auditory bullae, which bears similarity to those of the manul and the sand cat.
Johann von Schreber first described the European wildcat in 1778, under the scientific name Felis (catus) silvestris. Later on several other scientists, naturalists and explorers described these felines from Asian, African and European countries. Reginald Innes Pocock F.R.S., a renowned British zoologist and taxonomist examined the wildcat skins in the British Museum and in 1951 designated seven Felis silvestris subspecies from Europe to Asia Minor, 25 Felis lybica subspecies from Africa and West to Central Asia and three Felis bieti subspecies from Eastern Asia.
Asiatic subspecies have spotted, isabelline coats, which means it can be a pale grey-yellow, pale fawn, pale cream-brown or parchment color. On the other hand African subspecies have sandy-grey coat with banded legs and red-backed ears. European subspecies look like heavily built striped tabbies (gray or brownish in color and streaked with dark stripes) with white chins and throats and bushy tails. All the subspecies are larger than house cats, having longer legs and more robust bodies.
Various evidence — morphological, genetical and behavioural— indicate that the domestication of housecat took place from the African wildcat in the Fertile Crescent (a crescent-shaped region containing the comparatively moist and fertile land of otherwise arid and semi-arid Western Asia, and the Nile Valley and Nile Delta of northeast Africa) region of the Near East (a geographical term that roughly encompasses Western Asia) between 9,000-10,000 years ago. This was the time when agriculture was on the rise and there was a need to protect harvests from grain-eating rodents.
Neolithic graves, dating back to 9,500 years, in Shillourokambos, Cyprus, when excavated found to contain skeletons of both human and cat, laid close to one another. This was the earliest evidence of wildcat domestication. The discovery, combined with genetic studies, suggest that cats were probably domesticated in the Middle East, in the Fertile Crescent. From here they were brought to Cyprus and Egypt.
Despite the fact that the domestication took place thousands of years ago there is very little difference between the housecat and its wild ancestor. Experts believe the reason is its breeding has been more subject to natural selection imposed by its environment, rather than the artificial selection by humans. The African wildcat, from which domestic cats came, lacks the sharply defined dorsal stripe present in its European counterpart, a peculiarity that corresponds with the coat patterns found in striped tabbies. In addition to this the housecat’s tail is usually thin like the African wildcat in contrast to thick and bushy tail of the European subspecies. European wildcats are notoriously difficult to tame, whereas hand-reared African wildcats become almost like domestic tabbies, but are more intolerant of other cats, and almost invariably drive away their mates, siblings and grown kittens. Like housecat, kittens of African wildcat also undergo fast physical development during the first two weeks of life, while European wildcat kittens develop much more slowly.
Crossbreeding between wildcats and housecats has been on an extensive scale almost throughout the entire range of the species. The baculi (a bone found in the penis of many placental mammals; absent in humans) of European domestic cats resemble closely to those of local, rather than African wildcats, which indicates crossbreeding between housecats and wildcats of European origin has been extensive.
Mammal Species of the World has recognized 22 subspecies, as of 2005. They have been clubbed into three broad categories:
- Forest wildcats (silvestris group).
- Steppe wildcats (ornata–caudata group): It includes the subspecies ornata, nesterovi and iraki. They are distinguished from the forest wildcats by their smaller size, comparatively lighter fur colour and longer, more sharply pointed tails.
- Bay or bush wildcats (ornata–lybica group): This is the group from which the domestic cat derives. It includes the subspecies chutuchta, lybica, ocreata, rubida, cafra, griselda, and mellandi. They can be distinguished from the steppe wildcat by their generally paler colouration, with well-developed bands and spot patterns.
- The subspecies cretensis, jordansi, reyi and the European and North African populations of lybica represent transitional forms between the forest and bay wildcat groups.
However, the IUCN recognises only four subspecies (cafra, lybica, silvestris and ornata), with the addition of the Chinese mountain cat, earlier considered a distinct species.
Wildcat is a small species compared to other members of the Felinae, but is larger than the housecat. The species size varies according to Bergmann’s Rule, which says, within a broadly distributed taxonomic clade (a group consisting of an ancestor and all its descendants), populations and species of larger size are found in colder environments, while smaller ones occur in warmer regions. In the case of wildcats also larger specimens are found in cool, northern areas of Europe (such as Scandinavia and Scotland) and of Middle Asia (such as Siberia, Mongolia and Manchuria).
In appearance wildcats have similarity with the striped tabby cat. Their legs are relatively longer, but more robust. Tail is also long, and usually slightly exceeds one-half of the animal’s body length. Skull is more spherical compared to leopard and jungle cats and the cranial volume (measure of the volume of the interior of the cranium also called the braincase or brainpan or skull) is greater. Ears are broader at the base and are of moderate length. Large eyes with yellowish-green irises have vertical pupils. Its dentition is relatively smaller and weaker than the jungle cat’s. Males have body length of 40 to 91 cm, while the tail is 20 to 40 cm long. It normally weighs 5 to 8 kg. Females are slightly smaller with 40 to 77 cm long body and 20 to 35 cm long tail. They weigh 3 to 5 kg.
Pre-anal glands are present in both the sexes. They are consist of moderately sized sweat and sebaceous glands around the anal opening. Large-sized sebaceous and scent glands extend along the full length of the tail on the dorsal side. Males have pre-anal pockets located on the tail, which play a very significant role in reproduction and territorial markings. They are activated when they reach sexual maturity.
Wildcats have good night vision compared to housecats. The reason is densities of their cone receptors are more than 100 per cent higher than in housecats. Their sense of smell is also very acute, they can detect flesh at up to 200 metres. They have white whiskers.
Fur found on the forest wildcat’s body is fairly uniform in length, but the hairs on the tail are quite long and dense, making it look furry and thick. In winter, the main coat colour which is fairly light grey normally, turns richer along the back, and fading onto the flanks. A slight ochreous shade (a moderate yellow-orange to orange colour) is visible on the undersides of the flanks. A narrow, black band on the dorsal side starts on the shoulders and runs along the back, terminating generally at the base of the tail. The underside of the body is very light grey in colour, with a light ochreous tinge. Sometimes one or more white spots may occur on the throat, between the forelegs, or in the inguinal region (groin). Tail is same colour as the back, with the addition of a pure black tip. Two or three black, transverse rings are present above the tail tip. Four well-developed dark bands occur on top of the head and the forehead. They sometimes split into small spots that extend to the neck. Two narrow, but short stripes are usually present in the shoulder region and a dark and narrow stripe is present on the outer corner of the eye, under the ear. It may extend into the neck. Another such stripe occurs under the eye, which extends into the neck. The summer coat of the animal has a fairly light, pure background colour, with a combination of brown or ochre. Some specimens have ash-coloured summer coat. Patterns present on the head and neck are as well-developed as those on the tail, though the patterns on the sides, between the ribs and the hips, are difficult to perceive
In steppe wildcats the general background colour of skin on the body’s upper surface is very light, but the colours and patterns on the body vary to a great extent. Coat is lighter than the forest wildcat, and it never acquires the luxuriance as that of the forest wildcat, even in winter. While the top of the head in steppe wildcats is covered with dark grey coat, its facial region is of an intense grey colour and the upper lips and eyelids are light, pale yellow-white.
Some specimens have dense clusters of brown spots on the forehead, while a narrow stripe in dark brown colour extends from the corner of the eye to the base of the ear. Tail is much thinner compared to the forest wildcat, as the fur on it is much shorter with more close-fitting. It is mostly of the same colour as the back, with a dark and narrow stripe along the upper two-thirds of the tail. The tip of the tail is black, with 2 to 5 black transverse rings above it.
Whole of the upper body of the animal has small and rounded spots, which are solid and sharply defined, and do not occur in clusters or appear in rosette patterns. The hairs along the spine are usually darker, forming a dark grey, brownish, or ochreous band. The spots on the body usually do not form transverse rows or transverse stripes on the trunk, as it is in the forest wildcat. Striping patterns are boldly visible only on the thighs. Spots present on the chest and abdomen are much larger, but more blurred than on the back.
The underside of the body is usually white, with a light grey, creamy or pale yellow tinge. The lower neck, throat, neck, and the region between the forelegs are devoid of spots.
Social and territorial
Barring the breeding period wildcats are usually solitary animals. They live in burrows, usually abandoned by the other animals, hollows of fallen trees and rock crevices etc. Whenever there is any threat these cats instead of climbing trees prefer to retreat into their den or burrows, which are usually lined with dry grasses and bird feathers. Dens in tree hollows usually contain enough sawdust to make lining unnecessary. During winter, when snowfall prevents the animal from traveling long distances, it remains inside its den more than usual.
Like most cats home range of wildcat also varies according to the availability of food, habitat quality, terrain and the age structure of the population. Usually ranges of males and females overlap, however the core areas within territories are avoided by other cats.
Wildcats also defend their territory like other animals. For this they leave scent marks on prominent sites within the territory by urinating on rocks, tree trunks, vegetation and defecating at various places. They may also scratch trees, leaving visual markers in addition to the scent secreted through the glands situated in their paws. The number of markings are increased during estrus, when their preanal glands are enlarged and secrete strong smelling substances, which includes trimethylamine.
Reproduction and development
Violent fights among male wildcats over a female is a common occurrence during the breeding season. They often congregate around a single female and fight among themselves to win her over. These animals which are otherwise solitary in nature have been recorded becoming temporarily monogamous during the period.
Wildcats have two estrus periods, one in December–February and another in May–July, which last for 5 to 9 days. Ovulation is copulation induced, while the gestation period lasts from 60 to 70 days. Spermatogenesis or the process by which spermatozoa are produced, occurs throughout the year. Litter size ranges from 1 to 7 kittens, which are born blind and helpless and are covered in a coat of fine, light hairs. They are usually born in April–May, though some may take birth between March and August.
Weight of the kittens at birth varies between 65 to 163 grams, but those that are under 90 grams at the time of birth normally do not survive. When they are born, they are very delicate with pink paw pads that blacken at the age of three months and blue eyes that turn amber after five months. Eyes open after 9–12 days. Young wildcats start hunting with their mothers when they are about 60 days old, but their independent life starts after 140–150 days. Though the lactation lasts for 3–4 months, they start eating meat by the time they are 45 days old. Sexual maturity is reached at the age of 10 months. Like housecats, the physical development in African wildcats over the first two weeks of their lives is much faster than their European cousins. They attain full grown status largely by 10 months, though the skeletal growth continues for over 18–19 months. Young kittens leave their family at the age of 5-6 months to establish their own territories. The species’ maximum life span is 21 years, though it usually lives only up to 13–14 years.
Although the wildcat is primarily a solitary predator, but it has been known to hunt in pairs or in family groups, with each one devoted entirely to either listening, stalking and pouncing. While hunting it patrols forests and along the forest boundaries and glades. When the conditions are favourable it readily feed in the fields. Normally it hunts both in trees and on the ground. While in trees they can be seen jumping from one branch to another in pursuit of prey.
Wildcat’s sense of smell is comparatively weak, but hearing and sight are it’s primary senses for hunting. While hunting on the ground, it lies in wait for the prey and then catches it by pouncing on the exact spot. When the prey is aquatic, such as duck or nutrias (a large, herbivorous, semiaquatic rodent) the cat waits on tree branch overhanging the water and pounces as it gets an opportunity. Once the prey is caught it is killed by piercing the neck or occiput (back portion of the head or skull) with fangs. If the prey is large, wildcat leaps upon the animal’s back and bites the neck or carotid (arteries that supply the head and neck with oxygenated blood). While hunting rabbits they have been observed waiting above the rabbit warrens for the prey to emerge. Wildcats in Europe cache their food, but this behaviour has not been observed in their African counter parts.
Small rodents, like rats, mice and voles, followed by birds, hares and insectivores constitute wildcat’s primary prey base throughout its range. They are also serious poultry predators. These cats have unique and a very effective digestive system, which enables them to consume large fragments of bones without any ill-effect, unlike the housecat. It has also been observed that although the cat kills insectivores, like shrews and moles, but it seldom consumes them. The reason is the pungent scent glands situated on the flanks of insectivores. They need up to 600 grams of meat as their daily diet.
In Great Britain wildcats’ diet varies geographically; in eastern Scotland, lagomorphs (rabbits, hares and pikas) make up 70 per cent of their diet, while in the west, 47 per cent of food includes small rodents, like, wood mouse, hamsters, water voles and brown rats, etc. Besides this fawns of roe deer, chamois (a goat-antelope species) and red deer, etc. and small carnivores, like weasels, martens and polecats are also preyed upon. In the northern Caucasus wildcats normally feed on edible dormice and other mouse-like rodents. On rare occasions birds, young chamois and roe deer are also taken.
Near Repetek, these cats are said to be responsible for destroying over 50 per cent of nests of streaked scrub warblers, turtle doves, desert finches and red-tailed warblers. In Kazakhstan’s lower lli, they mainly target rodents, muskrats, and Tamarisk gerbils. After rodents, birds follow in importanance, along with reptiles, fish, insects, eggs, etc. Wildcats found in west Africa, feed on gerbils, mice, rats, hares, small to medium-sized birds and lizards. South African wildcats, which are larger in size compared to their western relatives, prey on antelope fawns. Domestic stock, such as kids and lambs are also occasionally targeted.
Wildcats have few natural enemies. Whenever threatened they take refuge in rock crevices, tall trees, abandoned burrows and dense thickets, which form their habitat. Although the jungle cat, a powerful competitor, occupies the same ecological niche with wildcat, they rarely encounter each other. Reason is that they have different habitat preferences: while jungle cat mainly reside in lowland areas, wildcats prefer higher elevations in beech forests.
Competitors and enemies of the wildcat include the golden jackal, martens, red fox, jungle cat and other large predators. Pine marten, a domestic cat size animal belonging to the family of weasel, is a great threat to wildcat kittens in Central Europe. In the steppe regions of Asia and Europe, village dogs are very serious threat to these cats.
In Tajikistan, wolves are the worst enemies. They are such a persistant predators that after getting the scent they even destroy cat’s burrow. Birds of prey like saker falcon and eagle-owls have been known to kill the kittens. In Africa, wildcats occasionally fall prey to pythons.
Wildcats are usually silent animals. The sound produced by steppe wildcat differs little from that of the housecat’s, while that of forest wildcat is similar, but coarser.
In 1693 Dr. William Salmon wrote about how the body parts of wildcat were used for medicinal purposes; while the blood used for curing “falling sickness”, flesh was to treat gout and the fat used for dissolving tumors and easing pain. Its excrement were being used for treating baldness.
In the mythology of Celtic polytheism this cat was associated with rites of divination and Other wordly encounters. Although cats are not prominent in Insular Celtic tradition, there are images of deity heads with cat-like ears, including that of the Irish figure of Cairbre Caitchenn (Cairbre Cat-Head), who w
as said to have been the ancestor of one Irish tribe.
Hunting of Wildcats
Wildcat’s fur is of unattractive colour in its natural state, and is also difficult to dye. Whenever it is dyed in dark brown or black it has a tendency of turning green if the dye is not well settled into the hair. If the quantity of dye is more than necessary, fur is highly susceptible to singeing. Due to the above reasons wildcat pelts are of little commercial value. It is used mostly for making cheap muffs and scarfs and coats for women. Sometimes it is also converted into imitation sealskin.