A new study finds that Scottish wildcats are now functionally extinct in the wild, with only a handful of so-called “pure” animals remaining in the wild.
The research, carried out by a team from the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) at the Wildgenes Lab at Edinburgh Zoo, found that among the nearly 300 wildcats they tested, all of those living in the wild shared what has been dubbed a hybrid gene pool. This means that Scotland’s wildcats are now “virtually extinct”, the authors say, because the wildcats have bred with the now-ubiquitous domestic cats of Scotland, watering down their own genes to such an extent that there appears to be no true population of wildcats left.
Dr. Helen Senn, head of conservation and science at RZSS, told The Press and Journal, ”Crossbreeding with domestic feral cats has long been known to be a major threat to the Scottish wildcat. We now have genetic data which confirms our belief that the vast majority of Scottish wildcats living in the wild are hybrids to one extent or another.”
The population sample was an interesting mix. There were 125 “wild-living” cats who were deceased but whose cadavers had been collected over the last quarter of a century. In addition to these, there were the corpses of 60 cats believed to be wildcats that farmers had shot between 1895 and 1985. Added to this were 19 cats that were trapped by Scottish Natural Heritage, 72 confirmed wildcats, and 19 domestic cats (or their DNA) sampled from across Edinburgh. Together this allowed the researchers a good basis for unpicking the current makeup of Scotland’s wildcat population.
They found that there may be a small minority of wildcats whose genetics would put them in a class of “pure” wildcats, or at least close enough to that end of the spectrum to be a meaningful DNA source for future breeding campaigns. The vast majority of wildcats, however, are so hybridized that they are not viable. Until now, scientists suspected this to be the case, but they did not have concrete data to confirm it. Now they do, and it begs the question: how can we save Scotland’s majestic wildcats?
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How Do We Save Scottish Wildcats?
As few as 35 pure wildcats remain in the Scottish wilds, with feral cats outnumbering the wildcats 3,000 to one. To put it bluntly, there is now no way of helping the wildcat population in Scotland by relying on the population alone, as there are too few animals from which to build genetic diversity. However, there are some options.
Wildcats can be bred in captivity—which, for these purposes, means sheltered enclosures that are as close to their wild habitats as possible—but that alone is slow-going and would likely require greater genetic diversity than we currently have at our disposal in domestic zoos and wildlife facilities.
There is another option that can supplement and support this approach: introducing wildcats from abroad to enlarge the gene pool and create a more diverse platform on which to rebuild the wildcat population.
This kind of approach requires clearing a number of regulatory hurdles, and Scottish Natural Heritage would have to carry out the proper assessments and give approval, but there is precedent for an approach like this in Scotland. A 2009 project released Norwegian beavers in Argyll, then supplemented them with beavers from elsewhere in Scotland, helping to bring the beaver population back.
Wildcats live in several places across Europe, India and Africa, but they are on the IUCN Red List because of their low numbers. They are currently rated as “least concern”, but scientists say a new assessment is warranted. As is the case in many of these places, wildcat territory in Scotland has diminished rapidly over the past century. With the encroachment of feral domestic cats who, through sheer numbers can out-compete the wildcats, there is yet another layer of pressure as the wildcats—who aren’t choosy about their partners—cross paths with ferals and mate.
However, as serious as this situation is, there is hope. Unlike with issues facing other animals that involve complexities like fighting disease or finding a way to slow climate change, the wildcats’ problem is, while not simple, more easy to manage.
Researchers say that, as with other wildlife transplanting operations, we can build a framework and create reintroduction and management schemes to help the wildcats. This will take time, resources and financing from the government, but there seems no overriding reason why we can’t help the Scottish wildcats bounce back and protect their legacy for many years to come.
This research was a first step: by shining a light on just how bad the problem is we can take the first steps to solving it.
Lack of diversity isn’t the only issue Scottish wildcats are facing. Deforestation is threatening their habitat. Join over 78,000 Care2 members and sign this petition asking the Scottish government to protect this endangered species.
Photo credit: Getty Images.