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What is a wildcat?

What is a Scottish wildcat?

We commonly call our native wildcat “the Scottish wildcat”, but what does that name mean?  For many it is the distinctive ferocious snarling animal that is captured (unfortunately) in many photographs and on film.  For others it is the belief that the Scottish population of the wildcat is somehow distinctive from those in mainland Europe.  And yet the term “Scottish wildcat” has only been used for about 100 years and even then not consistently because most books and journals since then have referred to it as the “wild cat” or “wildcat”.  Indeed we should really be calling our wildcats “British wildcats”, because they were once found throughout mainland Britain, but they have managed to survive only in Scotland

Until 1907 the wildcat in Scotland and elsewhere in Europe was given the scientific name of Felis catus, which is now used for the domestic cat.  This name was given to wildcats in 1758 by the Swedish naturalist Linnaeus, who invented the system of binomial scientific names that all living and extinct organisms have today.

However, in 1907 a mammalogist at the Natural History Museum in London, Reginald Innes Pocock, pointed out that there are no wildcats in Sweden and Linnaeus’ description is of a blotched tabby domestic cat. From then on the wildcat was therefore given the next available scientific name, Felis silvestris, by Schreber in 1775, and Felis catus was reserved for the domestic cat.

Also in 1907 the American mammalogist Gerrit Miller described the Scottish wildcat as a distinct species, Felis grampia, on the basis of its darker ‘broccoli-brown’ coloration (ED: maybe they overcooked their broccoli in those days?) with more extensive black markings compared with Central European wildcats, and he also described in the same paper the Iberian wildcat, Felis tartessia, which was also larger and darker than the typical European wildcat, “but scarcely or not distinguishable from” Felis grampia.

The subspecies concept became all the rage in the early 20th century and many local populations within a species were given a third name that denoted that they were somewhat distinctive from neighbouring populations. Later authors, such as Pocock, accepted these names as subspecies of the European wildcat, Felis silvestris, but acknowledged that there was an overlap in variation between the Scottish and European populations.

Is this Miller's Felis grampia or Felis tartessia?

 

Or is this Miller's Felis tartessia or Felis grampia? See answer at the bottom of the page.

To try and look into hybridisation and morphological variation in the wildcat throughout Europe, Jennifer Ward, a work-placement student from Glasgow University spent a year at National Museums Scotland. She travelled to the major museums throughout Europe and photographed as many wildcat skins as possible. She found that the pelage markings we use to distinguish wildcats from domestic cats and their hybrids in Scotland also distinguished European wildcats except for one character. The flank and rump stripes, which are so obvious in Scottish wildcats, become increasingly fainter from west to east. So Scottish and Iberian wildcats look very similar to each other and subtly different from the paler flanked animals from central and eastern Europe.

A male German wildcat

Genetic analyses have confirmed the close relationship between European mainland, especially Iberian, wildcats and those in Scotland. This is not surprising because the wildcat recolonised Britain about 9,000 years ago after the last Ice Age and Britain has only been an island for about 8,000 years, which is a very short time for a distinctive form of wildcat to evolve.

The ancestors of Britain’s wildcats survived in a refuge in the Iberian Peninsula during the Ice Age and recolonised northwards following the warming of the climate at the end of the Ice Age. However, wildcats in Scotland do represent the most northerly population in the species range and it is likely that they show genetic adaptations for survival at these higher latitudes, but these are not sufficiently distinctive for a taxonomic difference to be recognised.  

In 2017 the IUCN Cat Specialist Group’s Cat Classification Task Force published its review of the taxonomy of all wild-living cat species and concluded that, based on the most recent evidence, the Scottish wildcat is not distinct from the European wildcat and should also be called Felis silvestris silvestris to distinguish it from the wildcats of Turkey and the Caucasus, Felis silvestris caucasica. 

We can still continue to call our local wildcat the Scottish wildcat, just like people in Spain can call theirs the Spanish wildcat and people in Greece can call theirs the Greek wildcat, but taxonomically they are all the same with some slight regional differences reflecting local adaptations. However, one day I hope we can call our wildcat the “British wildcat” to reflect its successful restoration throughout Britain.

Answer:  The top photograph is the type specimen of Miller’s Felis tartessia and the bottom photo is the type specimen of Felis grampia.

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Image for Dr Andrew Kitchener

Andrew is the Principal Curator of Vertebrates at National Museums Scotland and sits on the Steering Group for Scottish Wildcat Action. His pelage research helps us to identify Scottish wildcats from hybrids and other feral cats.

Before joining National Museums Scotland in 1988 as Principal Curator of Mammals and Birds, he was a researcher and field assistant at the BBC Natural History Unit, working on the series Supersense. In 2010 his remit broadened to include all vertebrates. He is also an Honorary Research Fellow in the Institute of Geography, University of Edinburgh and an Honorary Lecturer in the College of Medical, Veterinary and Life Sciences, University of Glasgow, University of Glasgow. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, a Trustee of the People’s Trust for Endangered Species and a member of the IUCN Cat Specialist Group.

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