Wildcats (Felis silvestris) are found in Africa, Asia, and Europe. Although their physical appearance across their large geographic range is somewhat variable, they generally closely resemble domestic cats, which were apparently derived from Wildcats in the Near East at least 9,000 years ago (Driscoll et al. 2007). Wildcats are mainly nocturnal. They live in a wide range of habitats, but apparently are absent from very high elevations, tropical rainforests, and areas that receive less than 100 mm annual rainfall. In Europe, coniferous forests are likely generally avoided. Where large-scale deforestation has occurred (e.g., in Britain, where the species has mostly disappeared but persists in northern Scotland, where it is the focus of conservation efforts), Wildcats have sometimes adapted to living in the foothills of mountains and on moorland where rough grazing occurs.
Wildcat prey consists largely of murid rodents, although studies in some areas have identified other important pey items, such as solifuges (sun spiders) in a semi-desert area of Botswana. Wildcats are primarily terrestrial hunters (although they can climb well if pursued). They may ambush prey or simply hunt opportunistically. A prey animal is seized with the claws and pinned to the ground or held with the paws until the killing bite is delivered. Prey may be cached by hiding it under vegetation or in holes in trees or by covering it with debris. Wildcats are believed to be highly territorial. In captivity, females may breed at a year old. Mating is noisy, with much screeching and yowling.
In general, the Wildcat is among the most common of the wild felids (Driscoll et al. 2011). In Africa, populations appear to be generally secure and have probably benefited from the increase in rodent populations associated with farming. Although Wildcats have historically been trapped extensively in Asia for their fur, there appears to be little international trade currently for their pelts. Population status in most countries in Asia is not well known, but Wildcats are reportedly rare in some parts of Asia. An estimated 90% of Wildcat habitat in India has been lost. In a study in Scotland, nearly half of Wildcat mortality was attributed directly to humans, mostly persecution and road accidents. On all three continents where the Wildcat is found, however, the greatest threat comes from hybridization with domestic cats, with domestic cat genes having already mixed extensively with Wildcat genes in some areas, such as Scotland (Driscoll et al. 2011 and references therein). There are thought to be more than a billion domestic cats on Earth, with perhaps half of them living independent of humans. Feral domestic cats inhabit most sea islands and every continent except Antarctica. Because domestic cats are ubiquitous, interbreeding with wildcats is pervasive and indeed has been reported everywhere the problem has been studied.
(Sunquist and Sunquist 2009 and references therein; Driscoll et al. 2011 and references therein)
- Driscoll, C.A., M. Menotti-Raymond, A.L. Roca, et al. 2007. The Near Eastern Origin of Cat Domestication. Science 317: 519-523.
- Driscoll, C., N. Yamaguchi, S.J. O'Brien, and D.W. Macdonald. 2011. A Suite of Genetic Markers Useful in Assessing Wildcat (Felis silvestris ssp.)—Domestic Cat (Felis silvestris catus) Admixture. Journal of Heredity 102(S1): S87-S90.
- Sunquist, M.E. and F.C. Sunquist. 2009. Wildcat (Felis silvestris). Pp. 167-168 in: Wilson, D.E. and Mittermeier, R.A., eds. Handbook of the Mammals of the World. Volume 2. Hoofed Mammals. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.