20 facts about the closest relations of the domestic cat

Intro: this page contains some opinions too! Here are 20 facts about the closest relations of the domestic cat.

African wildcat compared with domestic cat
African wildcat compared with domestic cat. Image: MikeB from images in the public domain.
Showing subspecies of African wildcat and linked species
Showing subspecies of African wildcat and linked species
  1. The Near Eastern wildcat aka North African wildcat is the ancestor of the domestic cat.
  2. There is one group of small wild cats which are very similar in appearance to the domestic cat, specifically the spotted or mackerel/spotted tabby cat. They are scattered across Africa, Europe and Asia and they are the wildcats. Note how the word ‘wild’ and ‘cats’ are joined together when naming this species.
  3. I think that it is fair to say too that the various subspecies of wild cat merge as you follow their distribution from the south of the African continent, to North Africa, through to the Middle East and in to Asia and finally in China where they have their own wildcat, the Chinese Desert cat. It can be tricky to differentiate these subspecies.
  4. To that group, I think, we can add the Chinese desert cat which is possibly a subspecies of the Eurasian wildcat.
  5. The taxonomy i.e. the classification of the wildcats is somewhat, still, in flux.
  6. The African wild cat is divided into different subspecies, i.e. from the south and from the north but they look very similar.
  7. It is the African-Asian a.k.a. North African or Near Eastern wildcat (yes, the species tend to merge) which the expert had decided is the ancestor of the domestic cat.
  8. Might it have been possible that the Chinese desert cat (aka Chinese mountain cat) was also domesticated? We don’t know. There are still things to know about the small wild cat species including this group who are members of the genus Felis.
  9. The wildcats of Africa behave differently to the wildcats of Scotland if there are any left! It is doubtful whether there are any true Scottish wildcats left because of hybridisation with domestic and feral cats, which is a constant problem with the wildcat because they can mate and do mate with domestic cats.
  10. The Scottish wildcat is truly wild and secretive whereas the African wildcats in Somalia often live close to human settlements, even scavenging within the boundaries of villages.
  11. Studies have proven that the African wildcat has an almost identical genetic footprint to the domestic cat which tells us that the domestic cat is an emigrant from the Middle East and Africa. I say the Middle East because that is where the Fertile Crescent is or was and it is from there that the near Eastern wildcat was first domesticated (or tamed?) and was shipped to other parts of the world with commercial travellers. The Ancient Egyptians and Romans played a role in both domestication (Egyptians) and shipping (Romans)
  12. The wildcats have thrived in climates ranging from the harsh winters of Scotland to the equally harsh burning temperatures and scrub of Africa.
  13. The African wildcat has a less contrasty tabby coat compared to the domestic cat but you can see the similarity.
  14. Tests have shown that when the weak-tabby European and African wildcats are crossed with one another the hybrid kittens develop coat patterns which are much closer to the full tabby pattern of modern domestic cats. Accordingly, it is believed that this how the history of the tabby cat began.
  15. The wildcats do not have blotched or classic tabby patterns and this variation came about in the domestic cat through evolution in Britain in the Elizabethan era. They are perhaps considered to be the most popular tabby pattern.
  16. The Spanish wildcat lives in Iberia and is a remnant of the wildcats that once lived throughout Europe. They were hunted for their pelts and persecuted.
  17. The European wildcat was once almost extinct in the wild but the population is now fairly stable in many countries. They are considered to be intractable and untameable and they are a protected species in countries such as Germany, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
  18. The Indian desert cat also called the India desert wildcat is distributed from South of Russia down to central India. It is smaller than the African and European relations and its coat is distinctly spotted. It is also described as the Asiatic wildcat or Asian wildcat (Felis lybica ornate).
  19. The African wildcat both in the south and north is an elongated and slenderer version of the domestic tabby cat. They have larger brains than domestic cats due to their struggles to survive. Unlike European wildcats they can be quite tame when raised in captivity. It is this unique character of this particular species of wild cat which lent itself to domestication.
  20. The hybridisation of these wildcats threatens their survival in the wild. As mentioned, they mate with domestic cats or other hybrids and the purebred nature of the wildcat is therefore diluted and they can no longer be described as wildcats. The difficulty is that their appearance is very similar to true wild cats. The European wildcat is less prone to hybridisation because they are more reclusive.
European wildcat
European wildcat. Image in public domain.

Sources: The core material comes from Dr Bruce Fogle’s Encyclopaedia of the Cat to which I added my thoughts from memory plus some other references from the internet and some other books where needed.

Below are some more articles on the African wildcat.

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Chinese mountain cat is a subspecies and is not the ancestor of domestic cats in China

I am picking up on a study that I have written about before which genetically analysed the Chinese mountain cat to confirm (1) that it is a subspecies of wildcat and not species in its own right and (2) that it was not domesticated at the time the African wildcat was domesticated about 10,000 years ago.

Chinese Mountain cat
Chinese Mountain cat. Photo: SONG DAZHAO/CFCA

All domestic cats originate in the Middle East, specifically, it is believed, The Fertile Crescent, even those in China. It was plausible to believe that domestic cats in China might have evolved from domesticated Chinese mountain cats. But no, according to DNA tests. That means that all domestic cats were transported around the world over thousands of years by traders.

Some conservationists believe that confirming this cat as a subspecies is a demotion which may affect its conservation. I don’t believe so. I have always thought that this cat was a subspecies. That’s what the books tell me.

It was hard for Peking University geneticist Shu-Jin Luo to get the DNA for analysis! Some locals hunt the cat for their pelt which is a shame as it is ‘vulnerable’ to extinction in the wild. They call it the ‘grass cat’. They never found a live specimen. They’re that rare and elusive.

Chinese mountain cat
Chinese mountain cat. Screenshot from video.

They got their DNA from roadkill which is also sad. They also used old pelts and cats in museums and zoos. They collected DNA from 27 Chinese mountain cats, 239 domestic cats and 4 Asiatic wildcats (I presume this is a reference to the African-Asian wildcat aka North African wildcat or Near Eastern wildcat).

All the domestic cats in China were found to be the same genetically as other domestic cats in other countries. This confirmed that they had the same origins namely the Middle East.

Until 2007 the Chinese mountain cat was classified as its own species. But mitochondrial genetic analysis found that the Chinese mountain cat was a subspecies of the wildcat (F. silvestris). F. bieti became F. sylvestris bieti. It joined five other felines—including the Asiatic wildcat (F.s. ornata) and the domestic cat (F.s. catus) as subordinate to the wildcat.

The conclusion is not universally accepted. It is said that genes alone cannot determine whether the cat is subspecies or not.

Carlos Driscoll, a geneticist at the research nonprofit Galton Corp said that this study is about politics and not science. He says that the experts don’t agree on the taxonomy of the Chinese mountain cat. They don’t know ‘what the Chinese mountain cat is’.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, the taxonomy of the wild cat species is still in flux despite DNA analysis.

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Average weight of Chinese desert cat

The Chinese desert cat a.k.a. Chinese mountain cat is a fairly large animal about twice the size of a domestic cat. They are classified as a small wild cat. There is little information about its average weight. I do have two weights, one a female and the other male. The weight of a male Chinese desert cat is 9 kg which is 19.8 pounds. The weight of a female 6.5 kg or 14.3 pounds. The information comes from B. Tan in his work from 1984 called The status of felids in China. In The plight of the cats: Proceedings of the meeting and workshop of the IUCN/SCC Cat Specialist Group at Kanha National Park, Mahya Pradesh, India.

An Internet search produces a weight range of the Chinese desert cat of 6.5-9 kg. This is from Wikipedia. Another website states that the weight range of this small wild cat species is 4-9 kg or 8.81-19.82 lbs.

Chinese mountain cat and kittens
Chinese mountain cat and kittens. Photo: Peking University and the Qinghai section of Qilian Mountain National Park.

Relatively little is known about this cat perhaps because it lives in China where historically they have a poor relationship with wildlife but it’s changing for better, belatedly. I suspect if scientists asked the Chinese for permission to study this species of cat in China, they’d think that they were spies and bar them. The Chinese desert cat is part of the group of cats with the same lineage as the domestic cat together with the sand cat, the African wildcat and the European wildcat.

SOME MORE ON THE CHINESE DESERT CAT:

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Chinese mountain cat is hybridized and was not domesticated

Recent research tells us two things about the Chinese mountain cat aka Chinese desert cat: they are hybridized and they were not involved in the cat domestication process.

Chinese mountain cat and kittens
Chinese mountain cat and kittens. Photo: Peking University and the Qinghai section of Qilian Mountain National Park.

Hybridization

Hybridization is sometimes referred to as ‘genetic admixture’. Over many years the Chinese mountain cat has mated with both domestic and feral cats and other species of wildcat. Therefore, we have to conclude that many individuals are not purebred. I don’t believe that the scientists know how purebred this species of small wild cat is (twice the size of domestic cats). The researchers reported on hybrid wildcats being wild x domestic crosses in the Northwest of China. The same dilution of genetic purity exists with regard to the other species of wildcat: Scottish wildcat (same as the European wildcat?), European wildcat, African-Asian wildcat.

The research indicates that “genetically distinct cat populations interbred extensively in the past, and this happened not just between wild and domestic cats, but also between wildcats” said Claudio Ottoni a paleogeneticist at the Sapienza University of Rome. He was not involved in the research referred to.

There are Chinese mountain cats currently in zoos. I believe that they mean that the African-Asian wildcat aka the North African wildcat, also called the Near Eastern wildcat has mated with the Chinese mountain cat to create hybrid offspring. They don’t know how often and how many hybrid cats there are.

Chinese mountain cat
Chinese mountain cat. Screenshot from video.

Domestication

For many years it has been believed that the North African wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica) is the foundation cat of all domestic cats. It is believed that this species of wildcat was first domesticated around 10,000 ago in the Fertile Crescent. The domestic cat was then ‘exported’ with commercial travellers to other countries.

But it has been speculated that the domestication of the wildcat might have taken place at different places at similar times. Is it possible that the Chinese mountain cat was domesticated as well?

This research confirmed that the North African wildcat is the foundation cat of all domestic cats. It also found that there was no genetic difference between domestic cats in China to those in other countries which indicates that the domestic cats in China have the same ancient history as domestic cats in other countries. This means that the domestic cats in China are from the North African wildcat and not the Chinese mountain cat.

Comment: It does seem strange, though, that the Chinese mountain cat was not domesticated. Perhaps the reason is that they did not live near human settlements as was the case in North Africa. When wildcats live near people, they sometimes end up being domesticated. And it is in these villages that they mate with domestic cats and become hybridized.

P.S. The link to the study is broken so I can’t point you to it. Sorry.

P.P.S. The name of this cat is somewhat confusing. The term ‘wildcat’ is part of the name and it is a wild cat species. Note the separation of the words. And the name ‘Chinese desert cat’ is probably a misnomer as it lives in mountainous landscapes up to 4,100 meters. It is believed to be related to the jungle cat, sand cat and Eurasian wildcat. Others say it is a subspecies of the Eurasian wildcat. The classification of the species (taxonomy) in not fixed but has become more settled due to DNA analysis.

SOME MORE ON THE CHINESE MOUNTAIN CAT:

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Video of Chinese desert (mountain) cat

Here is a video from China of the rarely discussed Chinese desert cat (Felis bieti). There are also clips of snow leopards. ‘Chinese desert cat’ is perhaps a misnomer because this wild cat does not live in the desert. It is also called the Chinese mountain cat.

Chinese mountain cat
Chinese mountain cat. Screenshot from video. Beautiful and majestic cat.

The video is really nice and very rare. It is wonderful to see a Chinese desert cat in a film because we only see a few photographs normally. It is a fairly large animal about twice the size of a domestic cat. In the video you can see that its fur is quite long reflecting no doubt it’s habitat which must be quite cold for long periods being at high elevations.


 
THERE ARE SOME MORE INTERESTING ARTICLES ON THE CHINESE MOUNTAIN CAT AT THE BASE OF THE PAGE.

The books that I have describe the fur as nearly uniformly pale yellow-grey, ticked with longer dark brown or black guard hairs. The underfur is gray next to the skin and brownish at the tips. The belly fur is white. It seems to me that they vary in appearance. I have seen variants which are less slender.

As I understand it, this video was made in the Qjinghai region. As at 2002 this wild cat species was mainly distributed in Sichuan, Shanxi, Gansu, Inner Mongolia, Xingjiang and Qjinghai. My reference books do not have a lot of information about this cat species. They were first recorded in 1889 by members of a scientific expedition lead by Prince Henry d’Orleans. The main evidence for their existence came from skins on sale in fur markets in Szechwan Province. They purchased two skins and they are apparently still at the Musee d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris.

It’s classification as a separate species to the Eurasian wildcat is probably in doubt. I’m sure you will find books referring to it as a subspecies in the same bracket as the domestic cat, the Eurasian wildcat and the African-Asian wildcat (North African wildcat).

The video is really nice and very rare. It is wonderful to see a Chinese desert cat in a film because we only see a few photographs normally. It is a fairly large animal about twice the size of a domestic cat. In the video you can see that its fur is quite long reflecting no doubt it’s habitat which may be quite cold for long periods.

The books describe the fur as nearly uniformly pale yellow-grey, ticked with longer dark brown or black guard hairs. The under fur is grainier the skin and brownish at the tips. The belly fur is white.

As I understand it, this video was made in the Qjinghai region. As at 2002 this wild cat species was mainly distributed in Sichuan, Shanxi, Gansu, Inner Mongolia, Xingjiang and Qjinghai. My reference books do not have a lot of information about this cat species. They were first recorded in 1889 by members of a scientific expedition. The main evidence for their existence came from skins on sale in fur markets in Szechwan Province. They purchased two skins and they are apparently still at the Musee d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris.

It’s classification as a separate species to the Eurasian wildcat is probably in doubt. I’m sure you will find books referring to it as a subspecies in the same bracket as the domestic cat and the Eurasian wildcat and the African-Asian wildcat.

The records suggest that they inhabit mountainous terrain and they’ve been seen at elevations of 2800 to 4100 metres above sea level. As mentioned, it’s habitat is not so much desert terrain but probably steppe and mountainous terrain with bush and forest which is similar to the forest used by the giant panda and the golden monkey.

The skins referred to were apparently taken from cats on the steep slopes of the Tibetan plateau from about 30 to 38° North latitude at elevations up to 3000 metres.

On an analysis of scats (faeces) it appears that they feed primarily on rodents but they also prey on birds and pikas. They rest in burrows during the day and hunt primarily at dawn and dusk and at night which is similar to the domestic cat. This is unsurprising seeing as they are within the same category of wild cat.

It is said that they mate between January and March and most offspring are born in May. The birth dens are in burrows which are usually situated on south-facing slopes. Litter size is probably 2 to 4.

Their status in the wild in terms of vulnerability to extinction is not well known. Some believe the cat is rare and some don’t. Skins continue to be found at fur markets. A recent article on a Chinese website, Xinhuanet.com states that Chairman Xi is interested in the conservation of the Chinese mountain cat and the snow leopard. I don’t believe it but the administrators of the area where this video was made, which is the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau ,are apparently interested in conservation.

There has been pollution in the area from illegal factories one of which was an asbestos factory. These factories negatively impacted the lives of sheep herders in the area. When the sheep were slaughtered asbestos residue was found in their intestines. You can imagine the negative impact upon the wild species as well including the cats referred to.

As I understand it, both these species are found in the Qilian Mountains National Park. The local administration have spent 613 million yuan on an ecological restoration project to restore the area to its previous grandeur. I presume that this refers to restricting or eliminating illegal businesses in the area.

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Picture of female Chinese mountain cat and her kittens in the wild

This picture of a female Chinese mountain cat and her kittens has just emerged although the date on the camera trap photograph tells me that it was taken on 19 September 2018 at 5:51 PM in the afternoon. It seems that she has made a den in the side of a hill. It seems almost certain that she has taken over a burrow made by another animal. The photograph is rare and it is the first I have seen of this secretive cat in the wild.

Chinese mountain cat and kittens
Chinese mountain cat and kittens. Photo: Peking University and the Qinghai section of Qilian Mountain National Park.

The report online appears to have got their dates mixed up. I don’t think that is important, however. In China, we are told, that this rare species of wild cat, which is in the same family of cats as the domestic cat and the Scottish wildcat, is under “second-class national protection”. I don’t know what that means exactly but it at least tells us that this cat is protected in China.

Liu Yanlin who is involved in researching this species of cat, said that it is rare for one female Chinese mountain cat to successfully raise four cubs at once. We don’t see four cubs or kittens in the picture.

I am told that the photograph was taken in the Qinghai section of the Quilian Mountain National Park. This is one of China’s pilot national parks. It covers 50,200 km².

I have a page on the Chinese mountain cat, which is also called the Chinese desert cat, a misnomer because the cat does not live in the desert.

Chinese mountain cat in brief

The Chinese mountain cat has also been known as the Pale Desert Cat or the Pale Cat. This is a wildcat which is slightly larger than a domestic cat. It’s coat does not have the usual feline spots or stripes. There is an overall yellowish-grey colour.The female cat in the photograph has a stocky and robust conformation. Her kittens do have tabby markings. They are quite high contrast and very pronounced. It appears that these markings fade as the kitten develops into adulthood. The tail is tipped with black and a few dark rings circumvent it. The thick coat informs us that this cat lives in a cold environment. There are tufts of hair sprouting between the pads of its paws. It inhabits barren steppe country and mountain brush terrain. The picture on this page I think is an accurate reflection of the sort of habitat in which this cat survives.

In 1996, Dr Desmond Morris described this species of wild cat as the least known by the experts. Most of our knowledge at that time came from skins that had been offered for sale by fur-trappers in local markets. This cat weighs between 11 and 13 pounds and the length of head plus body is 27.5 inches to 33.5 inches (70 to 85 cm). It’s tail length varies between 11.5 inches and 14 inches (29-35 cm).

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