News flash for many people in the Americas: A little wildcat prowls Europe’s woods!
Here’s one feeding on a road-killed hare in Belgium. Despite what your eyes are telling you, it’s not a large house cat. Fluffy does not have that bushy, black-tipped ring tail or that black streak of fur running down its spine. Otherwise, though, the resemblance is uncanny — makes one wonder if domestic cats and wildcats might be related . . .
There are no wildcats in the New World, except domesticated ones that accompanied the first European settlers ( . . . yes, house cats and wildcats are related).
Wildcats never migrated into North America from Asia, over the Bering Land Bridge, as pumas, lynxes, sabertooths, and other cats did long ago.
Because some of those ancient feline immigrants headed south, people in Latin America today can catch glimpses of various members of the ocelot lineage like the tigrina or the kod-kod.
But none of these resemble a house cat.
The European wildcat does look like Fluffy, although genetic tests show that domestic cats are actually descended from Near Eastern/African wildcats.
Wait. There are more wildcats?
Yes, these beautiful little predators are all over the Old World.
Wildcats are the Pandora’s box of the cat family. They’re difficult for scientists to understand in detail, but we laypeople can just go by appearances.
This post covers Europe’s stocky, short-legged forest wildcat; next time, we’ll look at the sleek, long-legged steppe/bush wildcats of Asia and Africa.
A seemingly straightforward Felis silvestris, meaning “cat of the woods.”
But watch out! This is the cover of Pandora’s box. It’s loose and quivering as a host of taxonomic troubles roil around inside.
We are not going to open that box.
You might be curious about it, though, so here’s a quick overview of the situation:
- Every scientific name has at least two parts: genus (Felis, in this case) and species (silvestris). A third name, for subspecies, is also possible.
- Wildcat appearance varies from region to region because these little hunters can adapt to any environment from the Scottish Highlands and Alps to the semi-arid landscapes of central Asia and southern Africa. For well over a century, almost every explorer who saw a different wildcat named it a new species. With such a widespread critter, Felis “this” and Felis “that” eventually piled up to insane levels. For a while now, taxonomists have been trying to tidy things up, but there still isn’t much consensus on which wildcat species and subspecies names to use.
- Genetic testing hasn’t been all that helpful yet. Wildcats are fairly new — no matter how distinct they appear on the outside, Culver et al. note that they haven’t accumulated many genetic species differences thus far. Also, there has been some fooling around — a/k/a hybridization — among various Felis cats (Li et al.) and especially, during the 19th and early 20th century (Heptner and Sludskii), between domestic cats and European wildcats. That, too, makes the genome harder to read.
Currently, there is no uncontroversial definition of a wildcat, either morphological or genetic . . .
— Yamaguchi et al., 2004 (see source list)
We’re laypeople and don’t need to get into all this. So let’s follow Kitchener et al. (2017) and simply call Europe’s forest wildcats Felis silvestris. (In this filing system, the steppe/bush wildcats have a different name.)
Just be aware that it’s merely one approach — there are other, equally valid ways to herd wildcats.
So much fuss over such an adorable little kitty!
These are from the Cat Specialist Group unless otherwise noted.
- Weight: 7 to 18 pounds.
- Height at the shoulder: 14 to 16 inches. (Brittanica)
- Body length: 18 to 32 inches.
- Tail length: 12 inches.
- Coat: Just like a tabby cat’s (thin tabby stripes, not blotches) but with thicker, longer fur, especially in winter. And, as shown in the video up above, wildcats have a bushy ringed tail that’s tipped in black, as well as a dark line of fur running down the back.
- Vocals: Much like Fluffy’s (Sunquist and Sunquist), but in the right setting, wildcats can be awesome:
At Balquhidder, I was out for a late evening walk down to the River Balvaig on a night of deep winter and a million stars. I had been walking for about ten minutes when I heard the eeriest sound of the Highland night, not the hiss or the crackle or scream of a wildcat, but what David Stephen called the sob.
“Mau,” it said, and the voice was deep and throaty and velvety. I shivered inside my warmest jacket. Then from much further to my right, a second voice:
I simply stood dead still. If they had my scent, and quite possibly the sight of me too (for their night eyes are as good as yours and mine in sunlight), the best I could do was not give them sound or movement to work with.
There were two more monosyllabic exchanges, then silence. I stood until I was too cold for my own comfort, and decided I could do no more. But I was back there in the early morning and I found the remains of either two or three pheasants. I could not say which with any confidence.
- Average litter size: 1 to 7 kittens.
- Average life span: 12 to 16 years.
Features unique to this cat:
Taken altogether, wildcats have the widest distribution of any group in the cat family, ranging across Europe, Africa, Asia Minor, and parts of Russia and central Asia.
As for the European wildcat, conservationists are trying very hard to identify its unique characteristics, both physically and genetically, because they’re concerned about something called “cryptic extinction” — interbreeding with domestic cats to the point that wildcats lose their genetic heritage. More about that in the “red-listed” section.
Where found in the wild:
Look for the European wildcat in broadleaf forests, like old-growth Carpathian beech stands, as well as mixed woods where there isn’t much human activity.
This adaptable cat is found occasionally in grasslands and steppe. If people aren’t around, it will also approach farms and cultivated land, attracted by the presence of poultry, rodents, and other small prey.
Jungle cats are sometimes found in the same geographic region as European wildcats, especially in the Caucasus, but they specialize in a different environment — lowlands — while Felis silvestris hunts through forests that grow at higher elevations. (Heptner and Sludskii)
Snow depth is the terrain-limiting factor for any small cat. Per Sunquist and Sunquist, they don’t live in places where the mean winter snow depth is more than 8 inches.
Wildcats have been observed to stay in their den for up to 28 hours at a stretch in snowy weather, and they will move downslope during particularly severe winters.
Closest cat-family relatives:
They’re a little less primitively built, too, but that’s by report only: seeing this fact apparently requires knowledge of some very esoteric anatomical details.
Within the group, paleontologists report that European wildcats probably emerged first, followed hundreds of thousands of years later by steppe/bush wildcats. (Yamaguchi et al., 2004)
The next closest “branch” on the cat family tree is the leopard cat lineage of small Asian cats.
Famous European wildcats:
There are no well-known individuals, but Felis silvestris grampia, a subspecies in Scotland, is used very effectively by some conservationists to publicize the cryptic extinction issue as well as to promote particular ways to prevent interbreeding (Macdonald et al. [2010b], for example, discuss controlling house cat ownership in populated areas near the Scottish wildcat and culling feral domestic cats, but they recognize that public resistance to these measures is high).
How wildcats hunt and live:
Like many other cats, the European wildcat will eat almost anything down to frogs and fruit, but rodents make up to three-quarters of its diet in many places (Sunquist and Sunquist).
Birds come in a close second on the menu, but Felis silvestris is big enough to take hares, young deer, and even other carnivores, like weasels and martens.
Here’s a remarkable video from YouTube that shows a wildcat hunting in a field during the day (they’re usually nocturnal stalkers).
It also shows two wildcats interacting in ways that many domestic cat owners will find familiar.
At the start of the video, how could the hare stand its ground, knowing the cat wasn’t going to come after it? There’s a lot of subcontext to life in the wild that we totally miss.
That dark-ringed tail makes a terrific social signal, doesn’t it?
The cats also communicate with body postures and, of course, scent marking. Apparently the camera and microphone are set up too far away to pick up any sounds they might be making.
Note that both wildcats remain close to the line of trees.
Besides using select trees as social media, this allows them to immediately scoot to cover if a larger predator, say, a dog, bear, or lynx, approaches.
How they reproduce:
Like Fluffy, European wildcats come into heat several times each year, but in the wild they usually have only one litter annually, averaging 4 kittens.
Just like Fluffy, except for the cool camouflage patterns on the coat. These will fade as each wildcat matures.
Wildcat kittens weigh about 4 ounces when born and their eyes open in the first week or two. They’re ready to play at around 4 weeks and will start taking solid food two weeks after that. (Sunquist and Sunquist)
In the wild, weaned kittens will start to accompany Mom on hunting trips at 10-12 weeks of age. After a couple of months of hunter’s training, the youngsters will become more independent. Most are on their own by 10 months. (Cat Specialist Group)
Interactions with people:
European wildcats avoid us — they won’t even come out during the daytime when we’re around.
In zoos, they can get accustomed to the presence of people nearby, but unlike their African relative, taming and domestication are not options.
Naturalist Frances Pitt wrote “there was a time when I did not believe this … my optimism was daunted” by trying to keep a wildcat she named Beelzebina.
— Quoted in Wikipedia
Not many small cats are found in Europe’s Pleistocene fossil record, even in the refuge areas where an interesting mix of ice-age and modern animals, like mammoths and roe deer, gathered to wait for the latest continental ice sheet to melt.
Nevertheless, patient paleontologists have pieced together the history of Europe’s wildcat, mainly from fragments of bone and teeth that have been recovered from caves and other good fossilizing environments.
They believe that wildcats are descended from a rather mysterious small cat known as Felis lunensis or Martelli’s cat, that lived in Europe (and perhaps elsewhere) 2 to 3 million years ago, in the early Pleistocene or late Pliocene.
Not much is known about Martelli’s cat, but Yamaguchi et al. (2004) suggest that it may have developed into the modern Felis silvestris around 450,000 to 350,000 years ago.
How? Well, that’s the question.
Ice ages have powerful effects on evolution. Each time one begins — and there have been dozens of them since Martelli’s cat showed up — wildlife and plants that enjoy a temperate climate must find a refuge, where they may mingle with species they wouldn’t ordinarily meet.
Recolonization during a warmer interglacial period, like the one we’re in now, is a complex process, too.
This is all part of European human history, too.
In short, ice age cycling affects evolution in many ways. Somehow it, and other events and biological interactions along the way, reshaped that old Felis lunensis into the modern European wildcat.
And conservationists are worried that this rich genetic heritage is now threatened by the presence of the domestic cat in the wildcat’s range.
Yes. Overall, wildcats are listed as Least Concern because they are widespread and numerous.
However, there are domestic cat genes in almost all European, African, and central Asian wildcats. (Driscoll et al., 2007)
Fluffy and wildcats can interbreed and have probably been doing so since house cats first became common. However, the extent of this hybridization is not well known.
Some sources consider wildcat/domestic cat interbreeding a serious threat to the European wildcat — Heptner and Sludskii, for example, suggest that there might not be many “pure” ones left! — while others, like Steyer et al. and Mattucci et al., find low hybridization rates in many areas, though they still consider it a major problem for Europe’s scattered wildcat populations, especially in Scotland and Hungary.
There also seem to be varied scientific viewpoints on hybridization and the cat family.
See Anderson and Stebbins, Arnold, and Mallet for contrasting views of hybridization’s role in evolution.
In addition, Li et al. note that hybridization has apparently played a role in shaping modern cat genomes.
But now we’re starting to lift the lid off that box of Pandora’s. Let’s leave it be, and move on, in the next post, to another fascinating group of wildcats, known to Kitchener et al. (2017) as Felis lybica.
Featured image: Peter Trimming, CC BY 2.0
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