European Wildcat

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European Wildcat (Attribution - Michael Gäbler; CC BY 3.0)

The European wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris), which has become very rare in most of the European countries, is a subspecies of the wildcat that is found in the forests and grasslands of Europe. They are also found on the Caucasus Mountains and in Turkey. They have been locally extinct from England, Wales and Scandinavia and numbers in Scotland are critically low. Although legally protected, these cats are still shot by humans who often mistake them for feral domestic cats. Among the West European countries Portugal and Spain both have the greatest population of wildcats, but the animals in these regions are threatened by breeding with feral cats and loss of habitat. It is not only in the above two countries, but in most of its range it faces the problem of interbreeding with the feral cats, which is a significant threat to the wild population’s distinctiveness. In the Scottish Highlands too, where around 400 individuals were thought to be surviving in the wild in 2004, interbreeding is the biggest threat. The easternmost populations found in Moldova, Caucasus and Ukraine have low levels of domestic cat hybridization.

Wildcats were common in the European Pleistocene era; when the ice vanished, they gradually became adapted to forest life. Some experts limit F. s. silvestris to populations of the European mainland. If this is the case then the populations inhabiting Mediterranean islands, Scotland, Caucasus and Turkey will be regarded as separate subspecies.

If we look at the physical appearance of the European wildcat it is much bulkier than both — domestic cat and African wildcat. Large size, thick fur and non-tapered tail are its distinguishing features. Despite this people often mistake it with domestic cat. A study showed an error rate of 39 per cent. Nocturnal in nature, the wildcat can also be spotted during daytime in places where there is no human disturbance.

Despite being larger in size the weight of the European wildcat is almost similar to the average housecat. Males weigh an average of 5 kg and females 3.5 kg, with strong seasonal weight fluctuations of up to 2.5 kg.

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Status

In 2012, discovery of previously unknown populations of Scottish wildcats, living in the Cairngorms National Park, was reported. Despite being unknown till that date it was still threatened with the crossbreeding with feral and domestic cats. Total 465 potential sightings were reported. In response to this the Scottish Wildcat Association (SWA) refuted the claims stating that the sightings were defined as hybrid crossbreeds by leading experts, and that the wildcat population was likely well below 100 individuals.

After reviewing 2,000 records of eyewitness accounts, camera trap sightings and road kills, SWA warned in September 2012 that Scottish wildcats could become extinct in the wild within months. Their analysis suggested that the number of pure-bred cats had fallen to about 35 individuals. It is said that severe decline in rabbit population due to myxomatosis has further accelerated the drop in wildcat numbers. To counter the problem the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland declared in March 2013 it encouraged collection of biological material but that cloning would be considered only after “all other avenues have been exhausted.”

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European Wildcat (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Taxonomy

In the Iberian Peninsula two different forms of European wildcat are often identified. Out of these the common European form is found in the north of the Ebro and Douro Rivers and a “giant” Iberian form, which sometimes acknowledged as a different subspecies F. s. tartessia, is found in the rest of the territory. The largest “Tartessian” males can reach 65 cm in length (plus a 34,5 cm-long tail), and weight 7,5 kg. Their stripe patterns are less diffused and the teeth are proportionally bigger. They feed more often on rabbits than those wildcats that are found in the north of the Douro-Ebro, which are more dependent on small rodents.

Many experts claim that the subspecies F. s. silvestris belongs to the populations of the European mainland only, but a genetic study conducted in 2007 suggests that the European populations, as well as those in Caucasus Mountains, Sicily and Anatolia belong to this  subspecies; on the other hand, populations found in Cyprus, Corsica, Sardinia and Crete turned out to be introduced African wildcats. As per the old classification that considered several different subspecies, the Caucasian wildcat (also including wildcats in Turkey) is (F.s. caucasica), the small population of Scottish wildcats is (F. s. grampia), the possibly extinct Corsican wildcat is (F. s. reyi), the possibly extinct Crete wildcat is (F.s. cretensis) and the Balearic wildcat is (F. s. jordansi).

Palaeontologist Dr. Björn Kurtén, a distinguished vertebrate paleontologist who was a professor in paleontology at the University of Helsinki, wrote in his book Pleistocene Mammals of Europe (1963) that the disputed “Tartessian” subspecies is unique in the sense that it has kept the same size and proportions as the form that was found through mainland Europe during the Ice Ages of Pleistocene. The habitat of both forms is also different: the northern silvestris lives mainly in deciduous Quercus robur forests and the southern tartessia in Mediterranean evergreen Quercus ilex forests.

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