European wildcat in western Switzerland threatened by mating with domestic cats

Wildcat today looking quite friendly
Wildcat Photo: unattributed.
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We know that the Scottish wildcat is either extinct in the wild in Scotland or very nearly so because of long-term hybridisation with domestic and feral cats. These two species i.e. the wildcat and the domestic cat readily mate. It is the wildcat’s undoing in Europe and in Africa. And today, we are told that the European wildcats of Switzerland are in danger from domestic cats again.

European wildcat
European wildcat looking like a domestic tabby cat. I wonder if this individual is purebred or a hybrid? Photo in the public domain.

The European wildcat in the Jura Mountains of western Switzerland was thought to be extinct at one time but they exist, hanging on by their fingernails. However, the species is still highly threatened by what the scientists describe as “mating with a heterospecifics“. In layperson’s language this is mating with a cat of another species namely the domestic cat.

Wildcats should be mating with conspecifics (same species) in order to increase their population size and improve their prospects of survival. But what the scientists discovered, as I understand it, is that when the newly adult wildcats disperse the natal range (the home range of their mother) to find their own home range they have a much greater chance of meeting with a domestic cat and mating with that cat. Domestic cats were present wandering around the landscape in Switzerland when wildcat started their recolonisation in the 20th century.

It is believed by the scientists at the University of Geneva that “5% of contacts between wildcats and domestic cats result in the birth of hybrid offspring”. The wildcat is engaging in “heterospecific mating with domestic females”.

European wildcat distribution
European wildcat habitat/distribution. Image: PoC.

As the news media say, Swiss wildcats [are] too sexy for their own good! It appears that female domestic cats who are unsterilised are very happy to mate with male European wildcats dispersing to their home range. The scientists believe that this heterospecific mating creating hybrid wildcats (which are not therefore purebred) could bring about “an irreversible genetic replacement” within 300 years. In other words, in 300 years the European wildcat will be history. It will be written about in the history books but they won’t be a trace of it left even in respect of DNA. I’d predict that it will happen before then.

The biologists of the University of Geneva would like to see steps taken to avoid hybridisation by “controlling both feral and domestic animals in the area suitable for colonisation by wildcats – at least as long as potentially negative effects of hybridisation cannot be excluded”. They want some sort of governmental control over allowing unsterilised domestic cats free roaming outside. I’m sure that fans of the European wildcat would like to see domestic cats in the Jura mountains confined to the home at all times. That would be a solution for this problem.

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