Some of you might have seen the fantastic footage about possible wildcat kittens filmed up near Lochnagar https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-north-east-orkney-shetland-45939211. When the BBC sent me this for opinion my first thought was “Chris Usher, you are a very lucky man”: an amazing sight in an amazing location. The kittens are pretty big, and some are partly obscured behind boulders, so it is always possible one of those is the mother, but my feeling was they were three kittens. The third one, only seen as a glimpse of its rump, had a definite blotchy tabby pattern we see on quite a few hybrid wildcats in the not too distant Angus Glens. They do well in the wild it seems, perhaps because they are, like our tabby-marked wildcats, well camouflaged.
A now neutered blotchy tabby hybrid from our Angus Glens priority area
With one of the litter showing clear signs of being a hybrid, your immediate thought might be that the other two kittens are also hybrids, just not so obviously so. That could well be the case. But there is a possibility that the litter was sired by more than one father, something known as ‘multiple paternity’ or ‘heteropaternity’.
There is actually little available evidence that multiple paternity occurs in wildcats, but there is also a lack of scientific research on this (it’s difficult to do, and wildcats are generally quite coy about their private lives). However, we can look to the closely related domestic cat for some clues. Here various studies have shown the breeding system of domestic cats range from promiscuity (that’s the scientific term for both females and males mating with multiple individuals) to polygyny (a single male mating with multiple females). This range may be dictated by how aggregated the cats are, with colony-living feral and farm cats showing promiscuity and more territorial rural feral cats showing polygyny. In fact, though polygyny is the most common mating system in mammals (from field voles, though red deer to elephants), multiple paternity is common, having been recorded in several mammals species. Often, this has only been revealed to us through genetic testing, such as with common shrew and the nominally monogamous North American beaver, as well as in captive tigers.
We’d expect our wildcats to be more at the polgynous end of this spectrum, but that doesn’t mean that multiple paternity is non-existent. From camera and GPS studies of the wildcats and hybrids living in some of our areas, we’ve noticed that male territories show a fair bit of overlap in winter when wildcats breed. That means that each female could meet more than one male. The ground covered ever month by a male hybrid I tracked with GPS rocketed from about 2km2 in December and January to 20km2 around March. At this point, he would be patrolling for receptive females and probably having to defend those against other amorous males. It seems likely that he won’t have been successful in seeing off the advances of other males for every female he visited.
A mixed litter seen with a hybrid mother. Is this just genetic recombination or different fathers?
As any parent knows, the chance combinations of the parental genes can throw up all sort of unexpected results in offspring. So we can’t tell from looks alone if this litter has more than one father. But we should remain hopeful that at least some of those Lochnagar kittens will mature into fine looking wildcats. In any event, the footage provides a real insight into an often hidden part of the wildcat lifecycle. Most folk will never see something like this so well done to Chris Usher for being so observant (and lucky).