6 November 2023
Domestic cats introduced from the Near East and wildcats native to Europe did not mix until the 1960s, despite being exposed to each other for 2,000 years, according to two research papers published today in Current Biology.
An international team of researchers has found new archaeological and genetic evidence which transforms our understanding of the history of cats in Europe. The team sequenced and analysed both wild and domestic cats including 48 modern individuals and 258 ancient samples excavated from 85 archaeological sites over the last 8,500 years. They then assessed the patterns of hybridisation after domestic cats were introduced to Europe over 2,000 years ago and came into contact with native European wildcats.
The results of the studies demonstrate that, since their introduction, domestic cats and European wildcats generally avoided mating. About 50 years ago in Scotland, however, that all changed. Perhaps as a result of dwindling wildcat populations and a lack of opportunity to mate with other wildcats, rates of interbreeding between wild and domestic cats rose rapidly.
Jo Howard-McCombe from the University of Bristol and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland explains, ‘Wildcats and domestic cats have only hybridised very recently. It is clear that hybridisation is a result of modern threats common to many of our native species. 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, from the University of Oxford, says, ‘We tend to think of cats and dogs as very different. Our data suggests that, at least with respect to avoiding interbreeding with their wild counterparts, dogs and cats are much more similar to each other than they are to all other domestic animals. Understanding why this is true will be fun to explore.’
Professor Mark Beaumont, from the University of Bristol, adds, ‘The nature of the Scottish wildcat and its relation to feral domestic cats has long been a mystery. 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.”’
Domestic animals including cattle, sheep, goats, dogs, and pigs have been closely associated with people since the emergence of farming communities more than 10,000 years ago. These tight relationships led to the human-mediated dispersal of plants and animals well beyond their native ranges.
Over the last decade, genomic sequences of modern and ancient individuals have revealed that, as domestic animals moved into new regions, they interbred with closely related wild species, which has dramatically altered their genomes. This pattern has been seen in every domestic animal, except dogs. It would be fascinating to know whether domestic cats interbred with European wildcats, but the decline of native wildcat populations across Europe, and the lack of ancient cat genomes has made it difficult to do so.
The two studies, were carried out at universities in Munich, Bristol, Oxford and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland.
Notes for editors:
For media interviews, embargoed copies of the research and more information, please contact:
Greger Larson, University of Oxford, email@example.com, +44-7963905362
Jo, University of Bristol & Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, firstname.lastname@example.org
Dan Lawson, University of Bristol, email@example.com
Laurent Frantz, LMU Munich, firstname.lastname@example.org
Caption: “A wildcat which is part of the Saving Wildcats conservation breeding for release programme which conducted the first release of wildcats to the Cairngorms National Park, Scotland in 2023” Credit Saving Wildcats.
The two papers can be found after the embargo lifts at:
Jamieson et al : //doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2023.08.031
Howard-McCombe et al. //doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2023.10.026
About the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland rzss.org.uk
- The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) is a wildlife conservation charity with a bold vision: a world which protects, values and loves nature
- Edinburgh Zoo and Highland Wildlife Park are gateways to the natural world through which people can experience nature, learn about the challenges facing wildlife and discover how we harness our expertise in conservation science and animal care alongside the unique power of the RZSS family – our teams, supporters and partners – to save animals from extinction
- RZSS WildGenes conducts cutting-edge conservation genetic and genomic research on a large range of threatened species and works alongside government agencies, conservation charities and zoos across the world to deliver data, advice, training and capacity building.
About Saving Wildcats (#SWAforLIFE)
- Saving Wildcats (#SWAforLife) is a European partnership project dedicated to Scottish wildcat conservation and recovery. We aim to prevent the extinction of wildcats in Scotland by breeding and releasing them into the wild.
About the University of Bristol
The University is ranked within the top 10 universities in the UK and 55th in the world (QS World University Rankings 2024); it is also ranked among the top five institutions in the UK for its research, according to analysis of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2021; and is the 4th most targeted university by top UK employers.
The University was founded in 1876 and was granted its Royal Charter in 1909. It was the first university in England to admit women on the same basis as men.
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Oxford University has been placed number one in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for the seventh year running, and number three in the QS World Rankings 2024. At the heart of this success are the twin-pillars of our ground-breaking research and innovation and our distinctive educational offer.
Oxford is world-famous for research and teaching excellence and home to some of the most talented people from across the globe. Our work helps the lives of millions, solving real-world problems through a huge network of partnerships and collaborations. The breadth and interdisciplinary nature of our research alongside our personalised approach to teaching sparks imaginative and inventive insights and solutions.