Species Facts: Steppe/Bush Wildcats

Given the variety we see in domestic cats today, it’s hard to believe that they all come from one of the sleek, long-legged wildcats of Africa and Asia.

You wouldn’t believe how much time, effort, and money cat fanciers have put into redeveloping that wild look. (Norwegian Forest Cat [left] by Pieter Lanser, via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 2.0; Sokoke Forest Cat [right], by SHD, via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 2.5)

But genetic tests, archaelogical finds, and the art work of Ancient Egypt all show that Fluffy is indeed descended from an African wildcat.

There are different kinds of steppe/bush cat. Only one of these — Lybica, the somewhat sociable North African/Near Eastern wildcat — was in the right place (Fertile Crescent), at the right time (some 9,000 to 10,000 years ago), for domestication.

That connection makes this whole group of closely related felines very special (and a little problematical) to cat lovers and scientists all over the world.

Scientific name(s):

It isn’t the cats so much as the filing that gives taxonomists headaches. (Image: Mitch Barrie, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Remember, in the post on Felis silvestris, how wildcats are the Pandora’s box of family Felidae?

Well, once again we’re sitting on that box’s cover and it’s loose and shaking around.

There’s still no need to open it up, but we should get acquainted with a few basic terms that apply to steppe/bush wildcats.

These are associated with where the little predators live:

  • Lybica: Northern Africa and the Near East (Fluffy’s group!)
  • Cafra: Southern Africa
  • Ornata: Southwestern and Central Asia.

Yes, wildcats are widespread in the Old World!

European wildcat (Aconcagua via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)

All the taxonomic uproar arises when the boffins try to work out details of how this group got on the branch where a very different-looking but clearly related cat — the European wildcat (Felis silvestris) — is already perched.

We laypeople don’t need to get into that, fortunately.

Instead, once more we can follow Kitchener et al. (2017) and simply call all steppe/bush cats Felis lybica. It’s a good choice among several, equally valid wildcat taxonomy systems that are in common use at the time of writing.

So, per Kitchener et al. (2017), the three terms up above are names of subspecies:

  1. Felis lybica lybica — the North African/Near Eastern wildcat that became domesticated.

    Lybica. (Image: EcoPrint at Shutterstock)

  2. F. l. cafra — the wildcat of southern Africa. Cafra and Lybica share the continent, except for its tropical rainforests, which both avoid. Their territorial borderland is possibly somewhere around Mozambique or Tanzania.

    Cafra looks so much like Lybica that it was only recently recognized as a separate type of wildcat. (Image: Bernard DuPont, CC BY-SA 2.0)

  3. F. l. ornata — the Asiatic wildcat. Ornata is built along the same lines as its two African relatives, but it generally has small spots that fuse into a few stripes.

    Ornata. (Raja Bandi via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 4.0)


Domestic cat.


These are from the Cat Specialist Group unless otherwise noted.

  • Weight: African wildcats (Lybica/Cafra): 6.6 to 18 pounds; Asiatic wildcat (Ornata): 4.4 to 17 pounds.
  • Body length: Lybica/Cafra: 18 to 32 inches; Ornata: 16 to 25 inches
  • Tail length: Lybica/Cafra: 12 inches; Ornata: 8.6 to 15 inches.
  • Coat: Taken altogether, the fur background color on these shorthaired cats ranges from grayish to reddish, with Lybica and Cafra showing tabby stripes (thin ones, not blotches and bull’s-eyes). Ornata usually has black to reddish-brown spots that may coalesce into stripes, especially on the leg and tail. (Sunquist and Sunquist) It’s attractive, and Ornata used to be hunted for the fur trade, though not so much any more. (Yamaguchi et al, 2015) Steppe/bush wildcat tails are more slender and tapering than the European wildcat’s, but they, too, show rings and have a dark tip.
  • Vocals: Just like the domestic cat.
  • Average litter size: Lybica/Cafra: 1 to 6; Ornata: 2 to 4, rarely up to 8.
  • Average life span: Lybica/Cafra: 16 years; Ornata: 11 years.

Features unique to this cat:

While these wildcats are the size of Fluffy, their legs are much longer, making their back almost vertical when seated.

Also, this gives them a distinctive walking gait reminiscent of the cheetah’s, as well as some cute moves at play time (this is Cafra, I think):

Compared to the European wildcat, steppe/bush cats have a lighter build, in addition to those beautiful long legs.

They’re also much more tolerant of people, hunting in fields and cultivated land and sometimes even approaching settlements today just as Lybica probably did in the Fertile Crescent long ago.

You might think that domestication would count as unique, too, but apparently a small cat species in eastern Asia was domesticated, too, but only for a few centuries. (Hu, et al.; Vigne et al.)

Where found in the wild:

BhagyaMani via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Have you ever wondered how domestic cats can live anywhere from Saskatoon to Buenos Aires, or from Melbourne to Oslo?

It’s because they’ve inherited adaptability from their wild ancestor.

Lybica and other steppe/bush cats can handle just about any habitat except rainforest (where other small cats roam) and shifting dune fields.

You’ll even find wildcats keeping a low profile out on the Serengeti! Here, they live in holes that warthogs and other plant eaters have dug to escape lions.

In terms of distribution, Cafra is the most common small cat in southern Africa. Lybica ranges across northern Africa, the Near East, and along the outer part of the Arabian Peninsula to the Caspian Sea.

Ornata generally inhabits scrub desert and steppe regions, wherever there is sufficient cover, from the Caucasus and Turkey eastward into Mongolia and western China, and also south into India. It avoids dense forests and areas that get deep snowfall.

The western extent of Ornata’s range is unclear. It must meet Lybica somewhere in Asia Minor, but that general area has yet to be identified.

A wild-living cat on the Mediterranean island of Sardinia. (Image: Gurtuju via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)

There are two schools of thought about the wild-living cats of many Mediterranean islands (excepting Sicily, home to the European wildcat).

Some experts say that these are African wildcats; others believe that they are feral domestic cats brought to the islands after the end of the last ice age by Neolithic people.

Closest cat-family relatives:

Geneticists say that Lybica and Cafra are more closely related to each other than either one is to Ornata. And, like the European wildcat, all three are slightly less primitive than jungle cats, black-footed cats, and the sand cat.

Felis cats, as defined today, are the newest branch on the cat family tree.

The next oldest one is the leopard cat lineage. We’ll meet these small Asian cats (not closely related to the big cat known as a leopard) a little later.

Famous steppe/bush cats:

This all depends on how you choose to classify Fluffy. Most zoologists informally treat domestic cats as a separate species, but a good technical argument can be made for Fluffy still being an African wildcat.

Not counting house cats, there aren’t any individually renowned steppe/bush wildcats.

How they hunt and live:

It’s not easy to get out into steppe/bush wildcat country. (Image: South African Tourism, CC BY 2.0))

Steppe/bush cats are mostly nocturnal, coming out after sunset. They’re ground hunters, but these excellent climbers often use trees as escape routes.

Because they’re so hard to track in the wild, not a lot is known about African and Asiatic wildcats.

Apparently they’ll eat almost anything, as well as scavenge. However, just as with all small cats, rodents — in this case, jerboas, gerbils, mice, and voles — are their favorite food.

They like birds, too, and are big enough to take anything up to the size of a hen.

Besides poultry, these cats will also prey occasionally on small livestock like lambs or goat kids (this is why Cafra is persecuted as a pest in southern Africa).

Steppe/bush wildcats may even go after small carnivores, like weasels and martens.

Of course, because of their size, steppe/bush wildcats are vulnerable to larger predators, including owls and other birds of prey.

How steppe/bush wildcats reproduce:

Like domestic cats, Lybica, Cafra, and Ornata come into heat several times a year. Their kittens are born after a 60- to 70-day gestation and weigh 3 to 4 ounces at birth. The kittens open their eyes during the first two weeks of life and nurse for about a month.

Every mom needs a break now and then.

Throughout this period, Mom must support herself and her kittens alone, which is why female wildcats (and feral domestic cats) choose territories close to a reliable food supply. Males have larger territories that usually include those of several females.

Wildcat kittens become mobile at around 4 weeks and are ready to accompany Mom on hunting trips a couple of months after that.

By 6 months of age, they are ready for life on their own.

Like all cats (and most other mammals), males must leave home. Mom may allow her daughters to settle down near her.

The young male wildcats disperse to find their own territory. Eventually they will either occupy one that’s empty or successfully challenge a resident male.

However, this is a more complex process than the lion’s pride takeover, and wildcats, unlike lions and some cheetahs, don’t form male coalitions after disperal.

Because of its association with us, of course, Young Fluffy has a much easier path to adulthood. We, in effect, give house cats their territory and lifelong security.

Marchnwe, CC BY-ND 2.0.

Interactions with people:


Also, Lybica and Cafra are among the few African cats that benefit from human activities in Africa.

By opening up the land, we have created many favorable habitats for rodents, and these hunters are comfortable coming in close to human infrastructure to catch them.

Sometimes too close for their own good. Where there are people nowadays, there usually are domestic cats, both pets and ferals.

Throughout the steppe/bush wildcat range, conservationists say, hybridization with domestic cats is threatening their genetic integrity.

The Scottish wildcat is particularly vulnerable, but domestic cat genes have been found in all wildcat species. (Driscoll et al.)

Fossil relatives:

There isn’t much of a fossil record for Lybica and Cafra compared to that of European wildcats, which goes back half a million years or more, and none at all for Ornata.

This is partly because they are small carnivores, never very numerous to begin with and often living in environments that didn’t preserve fossils well.

But another problem is the comparative youthfulness of African and Asiatic wildcats. The earliest known wildcat fossils outside Europe are only about 130,000 years old, not long in geologic terms.

Based on these, and on other information, Yamaguchi et al. (2004) speculate that,roughly 20,000 to 50,000 years ago, wildcats moved out of Europe — the center of wildcat evolution for almost 2 million years — into the Middle East, and from there, both eastward into Asia and south to Africa.

This may have been a quick process, happening over just a few tens of millennia.

As it unfolded, the researchers suspect, that gorgeous steppe-cat build, so different from the stocky, short-legged wildcat of Europe, first appeared.

And now it has returned to Europe.

. . . [B]ringing domesticated steppe wildcats [a/k/a Fluffy] into Europe and Britain, and allowing them to range freely, has created an interface between the two strands of wildcat evolution for the first time in their evolutionary history . . . [M]inimizing introgressive hybridization between forest wildcats and domestic cats should be regarded as a high conservation priority.

— Yamaguchi et al. (2004)


Yes and no.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) lists wildcats as Least Concern, but it has not yet done a separate review of steppe/bush wildcats.

As in Europe, hybridization with Fluffy and habitat changes caused by human activity are considered the worst threats facing wildcats in Africa and Asia.

Hunting pressure has eased in Asia, but Ornata pelts still turn up occasionally in local fur markets. And, in southern Africa, as we’ve seen, Cafra is considered a pest.

Zoologists would like to know more about steppe/bush wildcats, but these are shy little hunters and much more needs to be learned about them.

Featured image: EcoPrint at Shutterstock


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