The Scottish wildcat is just one member of a very important branch on the feline family tree; you can learn more about the ancestors on our cat history and evolution page, but what about the other wildcats still around today? Below you can find a little information on the family that has roamed, evolved and ruled their niche over a greater area than any other cat; Felis Silvestris, the cat of the forest.
Showing the current distribution of the wildcats; a few hundred years ago the red (European) and purple (Asian) populations were much more extensive, they have been broken up by land development and human persecution
European Wildcat, felis silvestris silvestris; in red on the map above
The European wildcat evolved from Martelli's wildcat, one of the first known true small cats; the Scottish wildcat is debated as either a sub-species of the European family or an important isolated island population of it. Europeans are generally a little smaller than Scottish, with a little less camoflage, about the same amount of distaste for humans and a definite preference for forests. Ranging over most of Europe they are considered to be of "least concern" in conservation terms, however human development has caused extreme population fragmentation, and many of these populations are in the low hundreds so numbers could easily drop off quickly.
The Europeans face similar threats to our wildcat; in populous and developed countries hybridisation is a big issue, human presence and persecution has seen the small island populations such as Crete and Corsica fade into extinction over the last century, while habitat fragmentation is a problem for all of them. Germany is the only country investing significant efforts into conserving them with some success in captive breeding and reintroductions, though there are also efforts underway in the Czech Republic. The German team are starting to look at ways to overcome the fractured habitats which have caused even mainland populations to become effectively very small, such as Poland's wildcat often called the Zbik; only 200 remain mostly in one large national park.
Numerous subspecies have been suggested but the Scottish is the only one given any real credence; a few hundred years ago the European population would have covered almost the entire landmass, but the Scots have been seperated for at least 9000 years by the English Channel developing some unique behaviours. The wildcats of Europe are the father of all the other wildcat species, reaching back through Martelli's cat over 12 million years, to lose them would be to lose a cornerstone of feline evolution.
African Wildcat, felis silvestris cafra; in yellow on the map above
European wildcats forced south by ice ages evolved into a more slender and lightweight creature with a much thinner coat suited to the warm climates it found. Opinion continues to vary on exactly how to divide up the African and Asian populations; at one point just African and Asiatic were recognised, but today three distinct species are considered. Cafra was at one point considered just a subspecies of the African wildcat covering most of Africa south of the equator, today they're the true African wildcat and found primarily in grassland or forest avoiding dense jungle.
Lightly tabby striped with a tapering tail the African wildcat looks very much like the domestic cat and is reported to be easily tamed when reared as a kitten, as a result hybridisation is a problem especially with conservation efforts to help them unfortunately almost non-existent. One group of scientists has managed to clone pure African wildcats as part of research into ways to help save them.
Near Eastern Wildcat, felis silvestris lybica; in orange on the map above
Originally thought of as the African wildcat, the Near Eastern wildcat is now defined as filling in the central zone between the African, European and Asiatic populations, similar in appearance to the African and Asiatic cats it variously exhibits spots and stripes on a slender body and spreads from North Africa, across the Middle East and into Eastern Asia. Genetic research recently highlighted the Near Eastern as the true ancestor of the domestic cat, with all pet cats able to trace their genes back to five females that lived in the Middle East region 12,000 years ago.
Near Easterns were the first subspecies to evolve from the European wildcat, with the African and Asiatic populations then evolving from it as it spread further into the landscape. Like them it exists in a variety of habitats including desert edges, sometimes being referred to as the Desert cat.
Asiatic Wildcat, felis silvestris ornata; in purple on the map above
The Asiatic wildcat, much like the African and Near Eastern is a slender, domestic-like cat but with a spotted coat and a preference for deserts, steppe and forests; it is often called the Asian steppe wildcat or Indian desert cat. Little is known about the species although it appears to suffer considerable fragmentation across its range being known for sure to exist in just a few national parks.
Chinese Mountain Cat, felis silvestris bieti; in blue on the map above
Still under some debate as to whether it should be classed as a wildcat or not, the Chinese mountain cat or Chinese desert cat undoubtedly descended from the spotted Asiatic wildcat, but has reverted back to very faint stripes and a more considerable size and coat thickness to survive habitats like the Tibetan plateau, though it is also found in true deserts.
Very small in number and very little known, the entire species is understood from just six captives and one set of photos. The primary threat to this cat seems to be the poisoning of its food source; pikas are the Asian equivalent of rabbits and often poisoned by humans controlling them, the cats eat the poisoned carcasses which then kills them.
Domestic Cat, felis catus; on every landmass except Antarctica
No longer considered a member of the wildcat family the domestic cat nevertheless comes directly from it. Descended directly from the Near Eastern wildcat its distribution around the world by mankind has seen African, Asian and European genes bred into the bloodline as well as some other species such as the Asian leopard cat. Still closely related enough to produce fertile offspring in matings with any of its wild cousins, this most successful species of cat, the only one to learn how to utilise the planet's dominant species to its own advantage, is now their greatest threat.
Just like the cat in the picture, domestics can be trained from young to walk with a harness and lead, which prevents them from hybridising with wildcats, killing native species, or getting run over; consider trying it out with your next cat!
And we still have a lot more to learn
Due to their forest loving and elusive nature there is still much we don't know about nearly all the feline species; genetic research delivers family trees that often appear to disagree with the fractured fossil evidence, the 'official' number of species changes every year and many species have only been recorded in the wild by one or two people. The information above conforms to generalisations avoiding the sticky subject of exactly when everything happened.
The general truth for wildcats appears to be that they evolved in Europe around 12 million years ago, with ice ages forcing some of them to move south and develop into a more slender and tropical variation which is variously striped or spotted and ultimately gave us the domestic cat.
What we choose to call each of them is largely irrelevant, what is important is that all the wildcats face bleak futures; they are little understood, little studied and generally overshadowed by their more spectacular big cat relatives. Whilst everyone working with Scottish wildcats must remain focused on the Scots there are increasing numbers of conversations amongst conservationists across Europe to pull together a unified effort for all the European wildcats, which could hopefully spread in time into Asia, Africa and the Middle East; it's quite possible the methodologies being developed in Wildcat Haven could work for the other wildcats also.
Keep in mind, if you're ever on holiday in Kruger National Park, India, Poland or other places where wildcats live make a point of asking any wildlife tours or tourism officials about the local wildcats; tourist interest and therefore revenue can quickly encourage people to take a lot more interest in something they otherwise consider uninteresting!