The wildcat (Felis silvestris) physically resembles domesticated cats in most respects. However, while domesticated breeds show a great variety of shapes and colours, wild species are pale yellow to medium-brown with black stripes or spots. The underparts are light grey,and sometimes marked with black spots. Melanistic (all-black) individuals have been reported, but are likely to be the result of hybridisation with domestic cats. Unlike most domestic cats, their nose colouring is mostly pink.
Wildcats range from 45 to 80 cm in length, and weigh between 3 and 6 kilograms. Shoulder height averages about 35 cm and tail length is about 30 centimetres. The Asian subspecies tend to be a more slender than the European wildcat, with shorter hair and a lighter brown colouring.
Wildcats are found in a wide variety of habitats, from deserts and scrub grassland to dry and mixed forest, absent only from rainforest and coniferous forest. European wildcats are primarily associated with forest and are found in highest numbers in broad-leaved or mixed forests with low densities of humans. They are also found in Mediterranean maquis scrubland, riparian forest, marsh boundaries and along sea coasts. Areas of intensive cultivation are avoided. Asiatic wildcats are found at elevational ranges of up to 2,000-3,000 m, and are most typically associated with scrub desert.
Rodents and rabbits are the staple of the wildcat's diet across its range, with birds of secondary importance, although a variety of small prey is taken, and wildcats also scavenge.
Large home ranges (53 km² for a radio-collared female) have been reported in desert habitat, while smaller home ranges have been reported elsewhere in more temperate haibtat (1-2 km² for females in Scotland and France).
Wildcats have the same range of vocalisations as domestic cats, including purring, meowing, hissing, and growling. Except during the mating season, however, they tend to be quiet animals, vocalising only when close to each other.
Like domesticated cats, wildcats can live over sixteen years in captivity, but they rarely reach a similar age in the wild.
Wildcats typically breed only once a year, although a second litter may be produced if the first dies early. The European wildcat breeds between February and March. Gestation is from 56 to 69 days, tending to be slightly longer in the European wildcat than in subspecies living in warmer environments. In the wild, litter sizes range from one to five kittens, with three or four being the most common. The kittens weigh between 75 and 150 grams at birth. They are initially spotted, but the spots may fuse into stripes as the cat ages. The eyes open after seven to twelve days, and they begin to hunt live prey at ten to twelve weeks of age. They are fully weaned at two months, begin to live independently after about three months, and have dispersed to establish their own territories within a year, by which time they are sexually mature.
The world's population of domestic cats was estimated at 400 million twenty years ago, making the domesticated form of Felis silvestris one of the world's most numerous animals. However, domestic cats hybridize readily with wildcats, and genetic analysis of wildcat samples found that most showed evidence of hybridization. There are probably very few populations remaining of genetically distinct wildcats.
In the Near East region, wildcats occur at low density, and are threatened by habitat loss, fragmentation and degradation as well as hybridization.
In Scotland, 88% of wild-living cats may be hybrids or feral domestic cats, and in Italy and Hungary the proportion of hybrids is estimated at 8% and 25-31% respectively. On the basis of museum specimens, the proportion of hybrids in Bulgaria was estimated at 8-10%, but the extent of hybridization may have increased since specimens were collected. Wild cats of mixed origin have also been found in Belgium, Portugal, Germany (only one animal) and Switzerland. In general the genetic distance to the domestic cat is larger in the north of the range than in the south. Eastern European populations are also generally considered to be relatively pure.
Outside Europe, the extent of hybridization is considered likely to be lower, but still significant.
Assessing the status of the wildcat is difficult, because it is a cryptic species and because it may be difficult to distinguish between specimens of European wildcat and domestic cat.
Globally the wildcat population is decreasing but the species is listed as Least Concern by the IUCN.
The most detailed population information is available about the European subspecies, F.s. silvestris, although there is still a lack of information regarding its current status and population trends. There have been no recent large-scale surveys or European regional reviews of the status of the species. The most recent information was collated for a number of European range states in 2007 and is presented below, but this is by no means a comprehensive review.
Felis silvestris is native in the following Eurasian countries:
Afghanistan; Albania; Andorra; Armenia; Austria; Azerbaijan; Belarus; Belgium; Bosnia and Herzegovina; Bulgaria; Croatia; Czech Republic; France; Georgia; Germany; Gibraltar; Greece; Hungary; Islamic Republic of Iran; Italy; Kazakhstan; Kyrgyzstan; Latvia; Lithuania; Luxembourg; the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia; Moldova; Mongolia; Montenegro; Poland; Portugal; Romania; Russian Federation; Serbia; Slovakia; Slovenia; Spain; Switzerland; Tajikistan; Turkey; Turkmenistan; Ukraine; United Kingdom; Uzbekistan.
The European wildcat subspecies F. s. silvestris was formerly very widely distributed in Europe and absent only from Fennoscandia. However, severe declines and local extirpations occured in Europe between the late 1700s and mid 1900s, resulting in a fragmented relict distribution. It is extinct in the Netherlands and was considered regionally extinct in Austria, but vagrants still occur and the Italian population is spreading northwards into Austria. It is possibly extinct in the Czech Republic.
The Wildcat has a very broad distribution and is found throughout Eurasia. Five subspecies are distributed as follows:
Wildcats are most threatened by domestic cats. Hybridization is widespread and there may be very few genetically pure populations of wildcats remaining. Feral cats compete with wildcats for prey and space, and there is also a high potential for disease transmission between domestic cats and wildcats.
Other threats include significant human-caused mortality, in Europe, especially road kills. The species is still considered a pest in Scotland and is illegally persecuted. Predator control measures in a number of European countries may result in this species being killed as bycatch.
In the past Asiatic Wildcats have been trapped in large numbers for their fur, although at present there is little international trade in Asian wildcats.
Historically, habitat loss led to dramatic declines in Europe and Russia in the 18th to mid-20th centuries. However, wildcats can do well in cultivated landscapes which increase rodent densities, although these are the areas where hybridization with domestic cats occurs and spreads.
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