Paleogenomics: wildcats and domestic cats largely avoid each other

6 Nov 2023

An international team led by LMU paleontologist Laurent Frantz and Greger Larson (Oxford University) has investigated the history of cats in Europe using genetic analyses.

A wildcat which is part of the Saving Wildcats conservation breeding for release programme. | © Saving Wildcats

  • An international team led by LMU paleontologist Laurent Frantz and Greger Larson (University of Oxford) has used genetic analyses to investigate the history of cats in Europe
  • Wild cats and domestic cats introduced from the Middle East avoided each other for a long time
  • It was not until the 1960s that massive mixing began in Scotland

Munich, November 2023 - Over 2,000 years ago, the domestic cat came to Europe from the Middle East, since when it has lived alongside the native European wildcat. But when it came to mating, domestic cats and wildcats steered clear of each other for a long time. This has been revealed by genetic analyses carried out by an international team of researchers led by LMU paleontologist Professor Laurent Frantz and Professor Greger Larson (Oxford University).

The experts sequenced and analyzed the genome of wildcats and domestic cats, including 48 modern individuals and 258 specimens up to 8,500 years old recovered from archeological sites. Then they investigated whether, and to what extent, hybridizations took place.

The scientists discovered that domestic cats and wildcats generally avoided mating. To this day, less than 10 percent of the genetic ancestry of most modern domestic cats can be traced back to wildcats. “Our studies show that the biology of domestic cats diverges so far from that of wildcats that they normally would not interbreed,” says Frantz. “This is probably because domestic cats and wildcats have adapted to very different ecological niches and engage in quite different behavior: wildcats are solitary animals, whereas domestic cats can live in much greater densities.”

Dwindling populations promote hybridization

Nevertheless, this separation has been declining since the 1960s, as researchers demonstrated in a separate study on Scottish cats led by the University of Bristol, in which Frantz was also involved. Presumably as a consequence of the dwindling wildcat populations and hence the lack of opportunities to mate with other wildcats, the rate of interbreeding has increased rapidly in Scotland. “This hybridization is a consequence of modern threats. Habitat loss and persecution have driven the wildcat in Britain to the edge of extinction,” says Jo Howard-McCombe, lead author of the study on Scottish wildcats.

Scottish wildcats are the most threatened population in all of Europe. According to the researchers, the new findings could contribute toward the better protection of the species in future – in relation to things like conservation programs and resettlements. For Germany, the results indicate that the populations here are probably not declining as quickly and are therefore not yet subject to the same hybridization pressure. “We need more genomic data to be able to monitor the situation in future and prevent us from facing the same problems as in Scotland,” concludes Frantz.

A. Jamieson et al.: Limited historical admixture between European wildcats and domestic cats. Current Biology 2023. Doi 10.1016/j.cub.2023.08.031

J. Howard-McCombe et al.: Genetic swamping of the critically endangered Scottish wildcat was recent and accelerated by disease. Current Biology 2023. Doi 10.1016/j.cub.2023.10.026

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