Domestic cat is dominant among foxes, raccoons and stone martens (Germany)

It seems that the domestic cat is ‘top cat’ in the list of urban wildlife species in Germany (and elswhere). A team of scientists from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW) have helped us to understand the relationship between domestic cats and wild foxes, raccoons and martens in the urban environment; in this instance in Berlin, Germany.

Camera trap photo of a fox in a Berlin garden during Covid lockdown
Camera trap photo of a fox in a Berlin garden during Covid lockdown. Photo: Leibniz-IZW.
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They found that the domestic cat, despite being smaller than the fox, was the dominant species. Cats don’t seem to avoid the other animal species whereas foxes, raccoons and martens avoided people which is why they are active at night and they tended to avoid each other through adjusting their presence which is called ‘temporal segregation’ of the same place. In other words, they engaged in time sharing in order to avoid each other.

A lot of people want to know whether foxes are dangerous to domestic cats that are allowed outside. I’ve always said that under normal circumstances foxes are not a danger to domestic cats. This can’t be a hard and fast rule but it is a good general guideline. The research that I’m referring to supports my analysis.

It’s interesting that the domestic cat did not try to avoid the other species including the fox despite the fact that they are smaller than foxes and often smaller than raccoons which weigh between 3.5 kg and 9 kg. Of course, their weight varies depending upon their geographic location.

The scientists found that all wild species used the same localities but with “little temporal overlap during the night”. This is another way of saying that they avoid each other on a time share basis. I will restate that: it means that the species did not overlap in terms of time when they were present at the same location.

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They also found that the wild species avoided domestic cats; once again supporting the fact that domestic cats were the dominant species.

I find that somewhat surprising. I had considered the domestic cat to be on an equal footing to the fox in terms of dominance but it seems not. This may well vary and probably does, once again, depending upon the location.

The scientists obtained the participation of residents and installed 150 wildlife cameras (camera traps) in their gardens during five sessions from autumn 2018 to autumn 2020. They accumulated tens of thousands of camera trap photographs.

The project was called “Wildlife Researchers”. It is “one pillar of the science-to-society interface project WTimpact funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research from 2017 to 2021”.

They chose gardens as the study areas because they attract and discourage wildlife. They act as a food supply and are places where there are close encounters between these species of animal and domestic cats allowed outside.

They matched the photographs with information about the size of the garden, tree cover, potential food sources and the height of the fences and other information such as human population density.

They wanted to find out how flexible and adaptive carnivore species were interacting in environments dominated by human behaviour. Particularly, they wanted to see how the animals used time and space to interact or avoid domestic animals and people.

RELATED: Foxes and cats coexist in the urban environment

They regarded domestic cats as a “special case”. They found that when cats were present there were more raccoons present probably because the raccoons believed that they would obtain more food on the basis that the cats were either being fed or knew where the food was. Conversely, stone martens and foxes were not more likely to be around when cats were present.

This indicated a hierarchy, as mentioned, in which the domestic cat is the dominant species.

The study was conducted before and during the Covid lockdowns. They considered the lockdowns a blessing in disguise because people were more absent from the urban environment. This encouraged wildlife to be more present.

They concluded that “people play the role of a hyper-keystone species and their pets exact dominance over local wildlife, even over species that are relatively well-adjusted to human-dominated landscapes”.

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