A recent study contradicts the longstanding belief that European wildcats and domestic cats have been interbreeding for millennia.
An international team of researchers has determined that there was a surprisingly limited amount of interbreeding between native European wildcats and Near Eastern domestic cats, despite their coexistence in Europe for over 2,000 years.
The researchers sequenced and analyzed the genomes of both wild and domestic cats from 48 modern individuals and 258 ancient samples.
The results revealed that it wasn’t until about 50 years ago in Scotland that a noticeable hybridization began to occur. This uptick in interbreeding is believed to have been driven by the decreasing numbers of wildcats, leaving them with fewer opportunities to mate with their own kind.
Jo Howard-McCombe from the University of Bristol and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland highlighted the novelty of this hybridization.
“Wildcats and domestic cats have only hybridized very recently. It is clear that hybridization is a result of modern threats common to many of our native species,” said Howard-McCombe.
“Habitat loss and persecution have pushed wildcats to the brink of extinction in Britain. It is fascinating that we can use genetic data to look back at their population history, and use what we have learnt to protect Scottish Wildcats.’
Professor Greger Larson of the University of Oxford pointed out the similarity between cats and dogs in their historical tendency to avoid mating with their wild relatives. He noted that understanding the reasons behind this could be an intriguing area for further research.
“The nature of the Scottish wildcat and its relation to feral domestic cats has long been a mystery,” said Professor Mark Beaumont from the University of Bristol. “Modern molecular methods and mathematical modelling have helped to provide an understanding of what the Scottish wildcat truly is, and the threats that have led to its decline.”’
The findings stand in contrast to the history of other domestic animals, such as cattle, sheep, goats, dogs, and pigs, which have been closely tied to human settlements since the dawn of farming more than 10,000 years ago.
These animals, except for dogs, have shown a significant history of interbreeding with their wild counterparts as humans spread them beyond their original habitats, thereby altering their genomes.
The rarity of interbreeding in cats up until recently presents an intriguing puzzle, considering the decline of native wildcat populations across Europe and the scarcity of ancient cat genomes.
The two studies represent a significant advancement in understanding the historical dynamics between domestic and wild cats in Europe, with important implications for conservation efforts aimed at protecting the genetic integrity of endangered wildcat populations.
The study is published in the journal Current Biology.
Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates.