Insufferably, the wild cat has only recently lost its genetic purity, biologists write in a trade journal Current Biology. The cat-sick Romans, the Vikings with their ship cats, the Middle Ages with their house cats: the wild cat all turned up its snout, according to DNA research on old cat bones. Even in a British castle, where wild cat bones lay in a well together with those of domestic cats, the DNA of both species had virtually no overlap.
But things must have gone wrong in the 1950s, according to a second study, this time of modern cat DNA. Britain’s proud wild cat, decimated in numbers by disease and hunted by encroaching humans, must have made out with the much smaller domestic cat. About three-quarters of its DNA has now been contaminated by hereditary material from today’s domestic cat.
“Everything that has evolved in this wild cat over thousands of years has been lost in a few generations,” lamented research leader Jo Howard-McCombe of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland to the trade journal Science. The Scottish wildcat may still look big and ferocious, but it is in fact “genetically extinct”, notes Howard-McCombes’ group. Underneath his thick, striped coat lies Poekie the house cat.
All hope now rests on the approximately 160 wild Scottish cats held in captivity. Only about eighteen percent of their DNA shows traces of domestic cat. Last summer, the Royal Society released nineteen of the animals into a Scottish nature park in the hope that the group will survive and maintain its genetic purity. But others find it wiser to import a group of wild cats from, for example, Romania, where the animals still appear to be fairly purebred.
The wild cat is a bit larger and much more solitary than the normal domestic cat. The latter has thousands of years of evolution behind it, which is believed to date back to the earliest farmers. The slightly less grumpy African wild cat probably went after the mice that flocked to prehistoric farms. A friendship between humans and animals was born: cats would later serve as ship’s cats, be worshiped by the Egyptians, and be allowed to sleep in bed with modern humans.