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DNA Test Could Help Save Scottish Wildcat from Extinction—If It Still Exists

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Scotland is home to a least a hundred thousand feral cats. Unfortunately, the cats that now live in the Scottish Highlands are not native to the country, and they have helped push the already squeezed native felines closer toward extinction.

The native group—the Scottish wildcat (Felis silvestris grampia), also known as the Highland tiger—isn’t much bigger than your average house cat, although it has a larger tail and a reputation for wild ferocity. The subspecies probably descended from the European wildcat (Felis silvestris) between 7,000 and 9,000 years ago, roaming throughout Britain until deforestation dramatically reduced its habitat. The 19th century brought further population declines, spurred by more habitat loss, hunting for the animals’ fur, and persecution by livestock farmers and game bird hunters. By 1880 it existed only in Scotland.

The 20th century saw the population dwindle further. Roads and cars proved deadly; at the same time, feral and domestic cats (Felis catus) competed with the wildcats for prey and also hybridized with them, diluting their gene pool. Today the Scottish wildcat is a whisker away from extinction. An attempt to count the wild population in 2004 estimated that just 400 or so remained.

But even that number may be too optimistic. “Many conservationists put the figure at 100 and some think there may be none left,” Steve Piper, a wildlife filmmaker and trustee of the Scottish Wildcat Association, told The Scotsman. “They are disappearing so fast they are more in peril than pandas, tigers or polar bears.”

But there’s still hope. Paul O’Donoghue, biological sciences lecturer at the University of Chester in England, is collaborating with the WildGenes Laboratory at Edinburgh Zoo to develop a DNA test that can help identify whether a wildcat is purebred or a hybrid. O’Donoghue and his team will map the wildcat’s genome using century-old museum samples, allowing them to determine the genetic markers of a “pelage perfect” specimen. This information, in turn, will help future captive breeding efforts by allowing conservationists to pair up animals that contain the most wildcat DNA. O’Donoghue said the test should be ready by the end of this year.

Douglas Richardson, animal collections manager at the Highland Wildlife Park, which recently premiered two new Scottish wildcat kittens, told The Herald that saving this iconic cat—the only feline native to the U.K.—should be a priority. “We get our knickers in a twist because the Indians aren’t doing all they can to protect their tigers or the Kenyans their black rhinos, but it’s okay for us to let this one slip through the net? I don’t think so.”

Of course, any captive breeding program will need to have a decent number of wildcats on hand to be successful. Of the 75 adult wildcats currently living in captivity only one shows strong signs of being a purebred, and about a dozen, including all those at Highland Wildlife Park, show at least some hybrid characteristics. The rest are clearly hybrids.

More pure wildcats might be out there: This past April camera traps in Cairngorms National Park caught sight of several wildcats, the first time they had been spotted in that area. It is not yet known if they are pure wildcats or hybrids. Despite the low odds, O’Donoghue says he is hopeful that some pure wildcats will be found somewhere.

Keeping wildcats pure in the wild will remain the ultimate challenge. Conservation groups are calling for widespread neutering and sterilization of domestic and feral cats to prevent, or at least slow, any future hybridization. “We’ve got to act decisively and immediately,” O’Donoghue told The Herald. Otherwise, he says, “there won’t be any wildcats much longer.”

Photo by Peter Edin via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license

John R. Platt About the Author: Twice a week, John Platt shines a light on endangered species from all over the globe, exploring not just why they are dying out but also what's being done to rescue them from oblivion. Follow on Twitter @johnrplatt.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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