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A cat that can never be tamed

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


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Credit: Highland Wildlife Park

This lovely little kitten with a head that looks just slightly too big for its face is a Scottish wildcat, a very rare type of wildcat that has dwindled to about 400 individuals living in Britain, mostly restricted to the Highlands of Scotland. It’s also one of the two kittens, named Merida and Brave, born recently at the Highland Wildlife Park in Scotland as part of their Highland Tiger conservation project.

According to a 2007 paper in Science, all domestic cats descended from a Middle Eastern wildcat called Felis sylvestris (literally, “cat of the woods”). Author Carlos Driscoll, a research scientist at the University of Oxford, suggested that these cats, in typical cat-fashion, “sort of domesticated themselves”, wandering into our homes and claiming our beds and tabletops as their own from as early as 12,000 years ago. While Felis sylvestris is not considered endangered, because its subspecies are  spread all over the world, the Scottish wildcat is so endangered, it’s not only considered one of the rarest mammals in Britain, but is the only surviving member of the cat family native to Britain.

The wildcats of Asia, Europe and Africa are most often considered subspecies of Felis silvestris, which would make the Scottish wildcat a population of the European wildcat subspecies, Felis silvestris silvestris. But some taxonomists consider it a subspecies of its own, called Felis silvestris silvestris, because it’s spent two million years in total isolation.

Credit: Wikimedia

Of all the wildcats, the Scottish wildcat is the largest, with males growing between 6-9kg (13-17lb) and females between 5-7kg (11-15lb), which is about 50% bigger than your average housecat. They have extremely dense fur, reportedly growing up to 30,000 hairs per square centimetre in winter, and they have eighteen retractable claws, rotating wrists and big, muscular thighs for running. They’re also notorious for being resolutely and impossibly wild. These cats have earned the reputation of never having been tamed by a human, not even if captive-born.

Scottish wildcats can breed with domestic cats to produce fertile hybrids, some of which are pure black in colour. Nicknamed Kellas cats after a village in the Scottish Highlands in which they were first discovered, these black hybrids recall a fairy cat from Celtic legends known as the Cait Sith.

Head to Zooborns for footage of young Merida and Brave being very awkward and cute.

Bec Crew About the Author: Bec Crew is a Sydney-based science writer and award-winning blogger. She is the author of 'Zombie Tits, Astronaut Fish and Other Weird Animals' (NewSouth Press). Follow on Twitter @BecCrew.

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





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  1. 1. underwriter 5:03 pm 07/5/2012

    So this is the original and only “Touch not the…” cat “bote a glove”! Beautiful – long may they reign.

    Link to this

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