It’s hard to describe how wildcats and domestic cats are different, apart from their very different tolerances for people and the fact that domestic cats are generally nimbler and come in many more colors than wildcats. (Montague and others)

Experts are still debating what specific physical or genetic features define a wildcat. (Yamaguchi and others, 2004)
Starting in the nineteenth century, biologists identified wildcats by location and appearance. That system got so cumbersome – and the basic differences between many species were so few – that in 1951, they simply erected a species name Felis silvestris and then made each of the various wildcat groups a subspecies. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)

What it boils down to is that all wildcats got a third scientific name.

For example, gordoni is the Arabian wildcat’s third name. 

European wildcats – F. s. silvestris – are the oldest group of wildcats. They first evolved in Europe some 450,000 years ago. (Kurtén; Yamaguchi and others, 2004)

One of the latest wildcat filing arrangements puts the 21 currently recognized subspecies (Lyons, 2013) into one of these five basic wildcat groups (Yamaguchi and others, 2015):

1. and 2. African wildcats have short fur and the lithe steppe-cat look, with some tabby striping of their legs and body. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)

There are two groups:

  • F. s. cafra is found in southern and southeastern Africa.
  • F. s. lybica lives in northern Africa, coastal Arabia, the Near and Middle East, southwestern Asia, and on most Mediterranean islands. This is gordoni’s group.

3.  F. s. silvestris. Europe’s rugged forest cats look massive, but they’re about the same weight as the much slimmer-appearing African wildcats. Their favorite prey is rodents, but they also go after hares, rabbits, and even young deer. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)

4.  F. s. ornata. The dainty Asian wildcat is another steppe wildcat like Lybica and Cafra. Ornata has yellowish fur on its ears and, sometimes, small ear tufts. It’s the only spotted wildcat, with a coat that’s usually short but will vary by season and according to the wildcat’s age. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)

5.  F. s. bieti.  This cat has more common names than any other wildcat. This Chinese steppe, mountain, desert, or grass cat is about twice as big as Fluffy and has been sighted only in a small area that includes Sichuan, Shanxi, Gansu, Inner Mongolia, Xingjiang, and Qjinghai. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)

“Where’s my lawyer?”

As you can see, Bieti doesn’t resemble the other wildcats very much. There is ongoing scientific debate whether it really is a wildcat or a separate Felis species. (Driscoll and others, 2007; Werdelin and others, 2010; Yamaguchi and others, 2015)
Special note:  This post is adapted from one that I posted earlier this year at my other blog, RobinHuntingdon.wordpress.com.  I am very busy working on the final draft of “50 Facts About House Cats” and today I got up to Fact #12, which is about wildcats and domestic cats.  I don’t know that I’ll be able to get all fifty facts together in final draft by Cyber Monday; my alternate self-publication goal is December 15th.  Ultimately, though, since I’m not facing a contract deadline, the book will be published when it is in the most complete and enjoyable form that I can achieve for the reader.  Thanks to everyone for your interest!


Featured image: European wildcat in open-air enclosure in Bavarian Forest National Park: Aconcagua (talk). CC BY-SA 3.0.

Flying Scottish wildcat, Cormack by name, at the British Wildlife Centre: Peter Trimming. CC BY 2.0.

Arabian wildcat: Michal Mañas. CC BY 2.5.

Felis silvestris lybica (Sardinian wildcat): Gurtuju. CC BY-SA 3.0.

European wildcat: Luc Viatour/www.Lucnix.be. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Asian wildcat video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qsy69yIFSWI:  Wild India.

Bieti: 西宁野生动物园.  CC BY-SA 3.0.

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