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How to identify a Scottish wildcat
There are three ways to identify a Scottish wildcat: a pelage score, a genetic test and behaviour.
Dr Andrew Kitchener from our partner organisation, National Museums Scotland, analysed over 200 cat skins in the museums collection. From his research, he developed a way to score a cat, based on its appearance (pelage). This helps us to tell the difference between a Scottish wildcat, a tabby domestic cat and a hybrid of the two. Each characteristic is given a score: 1 (domestic cat), 2 (hybrid) and 3 (Scottish wildcat). The full diagnosis can be found here.
How we use this: The pelage score will continue to be used by the museum to identify specimens, which will improve our knowledge of this rare species. Having a good understanding of the key characteristics also helps our staff and volunteers working with trail cameras. These are motion-sensitive cameras used to monitor cats living in the wild and the pelage score helps to identify what cats are out there. This also helps gamekeepers and wildcat enthusiasts to identify cats they see in the wild.
Dr Helen Senn from our partner organisation, the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, has developed a genetic test to help identify Scottish wildcats from hybrids (when wildcats have interbred with domestic cats). It uses a sample of 35 nuclear DNA markers and 1 mitochondrial marker to identify the extent of hybridism (purity), and is based on one of the more powerful (83 SNP) tests currently available, developed in Switzerland. It has the advantage of generating data that can be compared to datasets for wildcats across Europe.
How we use this: Blood and hair samples are analysed by the WildGenes Laboratory at Edinburgh Zoo. By combining the genetic test with the pelage score, the scientists assess whether a cat should be used for the conservation breeding programme. If it's a high scoring cat, The Highland Wildlife Park and other land owners will then breed pairs to create a healthy population of Scottish wildcats for the purpose of later releasing them into the wild. We also bring hair samples to Helen which we collect when conducting monitoring. We position a wooden stake in the ground which is scented with catnip or Valerian to encourage the cat to rub against it. Then we collect the hair samples and take them to the lab for analysis.
We know that Scottish wildcats behave differently, even compared with those domestic cats who are living in the wild (ferals).
Dr Roo Campbell, who manages the priority area programme for Scottish Wildcat Action, has conducted new research based on tracking cats using GPS collars to see what they got up to. His findings will be published in 2016. We'll keep you posted on this exciting new development.