Genetic profile of the Scottish wildcat has been lost because of centuries of hybridization

My reading of a very long and detailed report on a study indicates to me that the experts no longer know for sure what they’re looking for in terms of the genetic profile of the Scottish wildcat. They say that the DNA tests that they carried out on wildcat carcasses represent a spectrum from domestic cats to true wild cats at the opposite ends of the spectrum. Although they aren’t sure that they are looking at wildcat DNA at the wildcat end of the spectrum. They may be analysing the DNA of wildcat hybrids. This is because of extensive and long-term hybridisation of the Scottish wildcat as it mated with domestic and feral cats.

The cat below looks like a feral tabby cat or wildcat hybrid:

Feral tabby cat or hybrid wildcat or wildcat?
Feral tabby cat or hybrid wildcat or wildcat? We don’t know. Photo: in public domain.
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles:- Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

This huge report of 2018 (fairly recent) comes to a very negative conclusion. They say that they don’t know how to “diagnose a wildcat in the wild in Scotland”. The other words, they don’t know what a wildcat in Scotland looks like in terms of its DNA. That is my interpretation and if I’m wrong then please tell me and correct me.

The scientists assessed a database of 295 wild-living and captive cat samples. One problem, they say, is that they aren’t sure whether there is a bias within the samples collected. They mean is that if a tabby cat has been killed on the road volunteers may have preferred to take back for analysis a cat that had the appearance of a wildcat. This introduced bias into the samples collected.

They concluded that hybridisation between wild living wildcats and domestic cats in Scotland is extensive. This has been known for a very long time and it has occurred for centuries. Hybridisation started before DNA profiling was invented.

There is a distinct argument, on my interpretation, that the genuine purebred Scottish wildcat is extinct and that all we are left with is hybrids to varying degrees of hybridisation. The most genuine Scottish wildcat left living in Scotland is still a hybrid. That is what I’m stating as judged by my reading of this complex study.

Scottish wildcat
Scottish wildcat. Technically I would classify the Scottish wildcat as a European wildcat. Photo: Mike Seamons.

They state that the so-called Scottish wildcat living in Scotland currently are, in fact, a spectrum, generically speaking, between the wildcat and the domestic cat. In their words “contemporary wild-living cat populations within Scotland consist of a genetic continuum between Felis silvestris [wildcat] and Felis catus [domestic cat] and that this was not the historical situation”.

They state that they don’t have a baseline from which to study the DNA of these cats. In their words once again, “The study of hybridisation is constantly mired in issues surrounding certainty of baseline and thus potential circularity.”

I take the word “baseline” to mean the genetic profile of a true, original Scottish wildcat. They don’t know what it is on my interpretation. If my interpretation is correct it seems to me that the world has lost the Scottish wildcat. It is extinct totally because we don’t know what it is anymore because of centuries of wildcat breeding domestic and feral cats.

The wildcat-like tabby coat can be very similar to the coat of a genuine wildcat. This is to be expected because the ancestor of the day’s tabby cat is the wildcat. Today’s domestic cat is a domesticated wildcat. The difference in appearance between the two is due to 10,000 years of evolution.

In Scotland it seems that the evolution from wildcat to domestic cat has gone into reverse with the domestic cat mating with the wildcat to muddy up the water so much that it’s ‘game over’ in terms of analysis.

The study: Distinguishing the victim from the threat: SNP-based methods reveal the extent of introgressive hybridization between wildcats and domestic cats in Scotland and inform future in situ and ex situ management options for species restoration.


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