Housecats and Wildcats (Fluffy and Silvester)

Ever wondered if different kinds of housecat – like a tabby and a Persian, or street cats and purebreds – are different species?

Biologists say that these animals all have the same formal last name (for species or subspecies) – catus.

So it’s all one group despite appearances or lifestyle.

The biologists then politely excuse themselves and get back to work, because the real challenge is telling housecats and wildcats apart, and they’re working under a wildcat conservation deadline.

What’s a wildcat?

Well, it’s not that beautiful animal at the top of this post. That is a housecat – a pedigreed Norwegian forest cat, in fact. It’s a catus.

Here’s a wildcat, photographed in a German national forest:

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It won’t follow you home, no matter how friendly and gentle you are. European wildcats are mostly untameable. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)

The resemblance between these two particular cats is eerie!

Fluffy the Housecat and Silvester the Wildcat don’t always look that much alike. Cat fanciers have worked hard to maintain a wildcat appearance in the Norwegian fancy-breed.

It’s quite an achievement. The breeders are limited to the human time scale, while European wildcats have had hundreds of thousands of years – since roughly the middle of the Pleistocene – to develop their look. (Yamaguchi and others, 2004)

Wildcats are formally known as Felis silvestris. (It’s usually abbrevated as F. s..)

So, even though the cats above are almost mirror images, they belong in different subgroups – catus and silvestris, respectively.

Still, Nordic “twins” aside, housecats and wildcats do have a lot in common.

Flying wildcat
Spot quiz: Domestic cat, wildcat, or a new Marvel character? The bushy ringed tail, with its blunt tip, clues us in that this is a Scottish wildcat. Actually, its nickname – Highland Tiger – would make a good Marvel character name!

Fluffy and Silvester deserve their own post in this series on cat evolution because:

  • Obviously, they’re closely related. But some of the best minds on the planet can’t agree whether domestic cats and wildcats are two different species (Felis catus and Felis silvestris) or just subgroups of the same one, i.e., F. s. catus and F. s. [wildcat subspecies name]. It’s just words to us, but the uncertainty can really mess up legal efforts to protect wildcats. (Macdonald and others)
  • Our own history is part of the story. Cats have associated with human beings for at least ten thousand years. (Vigne and others, 2012) During that time, we’ve carried Fluffy all over the world. And in the last century and a half, we have also dramatically changed its appearance through a system of artificial selection called the cat fancy.
  • Housecats and wildcats interbreed so much that it’s almost impossible to find “pure” wildcats in some parts of Europe. This prompts warnings that wildcats are at risk for genetic extinction. But doesn’t interbreeding show that catus and silvestris are the same species? And how can having kittens make the parents go extinct? The biologists are working on these and other questions.

Let’s start off with the cats closest to us – the few that are fancy-breeds as well as the many unpedigreed domestic cats that share our homes, yards, and streets.

Then we will get a little better acquainted with Silvester and see how some wildcats might have been domesticated.

After a brief outline of Fluffy’s history, we’ll check out the issue of genetic extinction – what it is and what it could mean for people – especially cat owners – as well as wildcats.

Feral cats, fancy breeds, and housecats

You aren’t imagining things – there really are a lot of cats out there, 600 million of them associated with households and another 600 million unowned, roaming and reproducing freely (Driscoll and others, 2011), i.e., feral cats. (Robertson)

“Feral” does mean “wild,” but these aren’t wildcats. Wildcats are, well, wild – feral cats were once domestic or else have very close relatives that are domesticated.

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Some cats haunt the borderland between feral and domestic.

Feral cats exist wherever people live or have lived. It’s a worldwide problem, and one that we humans have caused. (Robertson)

But in this post they are only relevant to the wildcat conservation issue, so we’ll talk about feral cats later.

What about the hundreds of millions of owned cats? Who really owns whom?

In other words, are housecats really domesticated?

Continue reading Housecats and Wildcats (Fluffy and Silvester)

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