Felis silvestris


Taxonomy [top]

Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family

Scientific Name: Felis silvestris
Species Authority: Schreber, 1777
Common Name(s):
English Wild Cat, Wildcat
French Chat Sauvage, Chat Orné
Spanish Gato Montés, Gato Silvestre
Taxonomic Notes:

?There is still no clear consensus in how to relate geographical variation in the morphology and genetics of the globally widespread Wildcat Felis silvestris to its taxonomy and systematics? (Kitchener and Rees 2009). The latest phylogeographical analysis (Driscoll et al. 2007, Macdonald et al. in press) suggests that the Wildcat consists of five subspecific groups, including three ?traditional? subspecies (Nowell and Jackson 1996, Stuart et al. in press): the African Wildcat (F. s. lybica Forster, 1780), the Asian Wildcat (F. s. ornata Gray, 1830), and the European Wildcat (F. s. silvestris Schreber, 1775), with the additional recent recognition of the Southern African Wildcat (F. s. cafra Desmarest, 1822) and the incorporation of the Chinese Alpine Steppe Cat into the species (F. s. bieti Milne-Edwards, 1872). An alternative taxonomic treatment could be the treatment of F. bieti, F. silvestris, and F. lybica (including ornata and cafra as subspecies) as three recently radiated phylogenetic species (Kitchener and Rees 2009, Macdonald et al. in press). The familiar housecat was domesticated from the Wildcat (F.s. lybica), probably 9-10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent region of the Near East, coincident with the rise of agriculture and the need to protect harvests from grain-eating rodents, based on genetic, morphological and archaeological evidence (Driscoll et al. 2007, Macdonald et al. in press). Although derived from the Wildcat relatively recently, for practical reasons the domestic cat is differentiated either as a separate species F. catus or subspecies F.s. catus. As noted by Macdonald et al. (in press), ?In terms of biological processes and phylogeny, whether domestic cats are treated as a subspecies of F. silvestris or a separate species might seem arbitrary. However, these taxonomic niceties are of the highest operational importance because the current legislation intended to protect the Wildcat is framed in terms that can be effective only if the Wildcat is recognized as a separate species?? Domestics are different than other 'forms' of animals and arise through an unusual set of circumstances (i.e., proximity and familiarity with people). While the genetic relationship between domestic and wildcats is very close, Driscoll et al. (2007) did find evidence for a genetically distinct group of cats that corresponds to 'domestics'.


Assessment Information [top]

Red List Category & Criteria: Least Concern ver 3.1
Year Published: 2010
Date Assessed: 2009-12-16
Assessor(s): Driscoll, C. & Nowell, K.
Reviewer(s): Nowell, K., Breitenmoser, U. & Breitenmoser-Wursten, C.
The Wildcat is the most common and widely distributed wild cat, and thus listed as Least Concern. However, hybridization or intercrossing with domestic cats is extensive, and taking place almost across the entire range (Nowell and Jackson 1996, Sunquist and Sunquist 2002, Macdonald et al. 2004, Phelan and Sliwa 2006, Driscoll et al. 2007). Further research on hybridization levels may warrant a reassessment of the Wildcat as a threatened species, due to population declines of genetically pure wildcats, under criterion A4e.
2008 Least Concern (IUCN 2008)
2008 Least Concern
2002 Least Concern

Geographic Range [top]

Range Description: The Wildcat has a very broad distribution, found throughout most of Africa, Europe, and southwest and central Asia into India, China, and Mongolia. Five subspecies (following Driscoll et al. 2007 and Macdonald et al. in press) are distributed as follows:

The African Wildcat F. s. lybica occurs across northern Africa and extends around the periphery of the Arabian Peninsula to the Caspian Sea (Driscoll et al. 2007). This extremely wide distributional range is accompanied by a very broad habitat tolerance, being apparently only absent from closed tropical forest. Although thinly distributed in true deserts such as the Sahara, they do occur, especially in association with hill and mountain country, such as the Hoggar. In North Africa they occur discontinuously from Morocco through Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and into Egypt. It has an extensive distribution across the savannas of West Africa from Mauritania on the Atlantic seaboard, eastwards to the Horn of Africa, Sudan and Ethiopia; southwards it is present in all East and southern African countries (Stuart et al. in press) where it is replaced by the Southern African Wildcat subspecies F.s. cafra (Driscoll et al. 2007). At present the boundary between the two cannot be determined by available genetic samples, but morphological evidence suggests the break to occur in the south-east, in the area of Tanzania and Mozambique (Yamaguchi et al. 2004a,b; Kitchener and Rees 2009).

Asiatic Wildcat F. s. ornata occurs from the eastern Caspian into western India, and north to Kazakhstan, and into western China and southern Mongolia (Nowell and Jackson 1996, Driscoll et al. 2007)

Chinese Alpine Steppe Cat F. s. bieti was previously considered a separate species (Nowell and Jackson 1996, Wozencraft 2005), but here classified as a Wildcat subspecies based on genetic analysis (Driscoll et al. 2007). Based on a small sample size, Garcia-Perea (2000) described cranial characteristics from two skulls as similar to F. silvestris. Endemic to western China and primarily found in Qinghai province, and possibly also northwestern Sichuan province (He et al. 2004). He et al. (2004) considered records from other parts of China (Inner Mongolia, Tibet, Xingjian, Shaanxi, Gansu and Ningxia provinces) to be other subspecies of Felis silvestris.

European Wildcat F. s. silvestris was formerly very widely distributed in Europe and absent only from Fennoscandia. Severe declines and local exirpations occured in Europe between the late 1700s and mid 1900s, resulting in a fragmented relict distribution (Stahl and Artois 1991, Nowell and Jackson 1996, Peichocki 2001). It is extinct in the Netherlands (Nowell and Jackson 1996). It was considered regionally extinct in Austria (Spitzenberger 2005), but vagrants still occur and the Italian population is spreading northwards into Austria (Lapini and Molinari 2006). It is possibly extinct in the Czech Republic ( IUCN 2007). It occurs from sea level to 2,250 m in the Pyrenees (Palomo and Gisbert 2002). In some parts of the wildcat's distribution (e.g. Scotland, Stromberg in Germany) it is possible that, as a result of hybridization with the domestic cat, very few genetically pure wildcats remain (Macdonald et al. 2004, Battersby 2005, Herrmann and Vogel 2005). Sicily is the only Mediterranean island populated by European wildcats; populations on other islands (including Sardinia, Corsica and possibly Crete) are probably feral domestics stemming from Neolithic times (Gippoliti and Amori 2006, Macdonald et al. in press, T. Viago in litt. 2009).
Afghanistan; Albania; Algeria; Andorra; Angola (Angola); Armenia (Armenia); Austria; Azerbaijan; Belarus; Belgium; Benin; Bosnia and Herzegovina; Botswana; Bulgaria; Burkina Faso; Burundi; Cameroon; Central African Republic; Chad; China; Congo; Congo, The Democratic Republic of the; Croatia; Czech Republic; Djibouti; Egypt; Eritrea; Ethiopia; France; Gambia; Georgia; Germany; Ghana; Gibraltar; Greece; Guinea; Guinea-Bissau; Hungary; India; Iran, Islamic Republic of; Iraq; Israel; Italy; Jordan; Kazakhstan; Kenya; Kuwait; Kyrgyzstan; Latvia; Lebanon; Lesotho; Libya; Lithuania; Luxembourg; Macedonia, the former Yugoslav Republic of; Malawi; Mali; Mauritania; Moldova; Mongolia; Montenegro; Morocco; Mozambique; Namibia; Niger; Nigeria; Oman; Pakistan; Poland; Portugal; Romania; Russian Federation; Rwanda; Saudi Arabia; Senegal; Serbia (Serbia); Sierra Leone; Slovakia; Slovenia; Somalia; South Africa; South Sudan; Spain; Sudan; Swaziland; Switzerland; Syrian Arab Republic; Tajikistan; Tanzania, United Republic of; Togo; Tunisia; Turkey; Turkmenistan; Uganda; Ukraine; United Arab Emirates; United Kingdom; Uzbekistan; Western Sahara; Yemen; Zambia; Zimbabwe
Regionally extinct:
Range Map: Click here to open the map viewer and explore range.

Population [top]

Population: The world's population of domestic cats was estimated at 400 million twenty years ago (Legay 1986), 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 (Driscoll et al. 2007). There are probably very few populations remaining of genetically distinct wildcats (Nowell and Jackson 1996).

The Chinese Alpine Steppe Cat, F.s. bieti, apparently has a very restricted range, and is the least numerous of the wildcats, classified as Vulnerable.

In the Near East region, Wildcats occur at low density, and are threatened by habitat loss, fragmentation and degradation as well as hybridization (Phelan and Sliwa 2006).

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 (Macdonald et al. 2004). During the European Mammal Assessment process (IUCN 2007), information (ranging from detailed national surveys to expert opinion) was collated for a number of European range states and is presented below, but this is by no means a comprehensive review. A review of the status of the Wildcat in Europe in the 1980s and early-mid 1990s can be found in Stahl and Artois (1991) and Nowell and Jackson (1996).

Scotland (UK): recent estimates have varied between 1,000 and 4,000 (compared to 1.2 million feral cats in Britain), but as few as 400 cats with classical wildcat pelage may survive, and it is possible that very few genetically pure wildcats remain (Macdonald et al. 2004, Battersby 2005, Macdonald et al. in press). If so, this population would be Critically Endangered (Kitchener et al. 2005). Surveys show that 30% of populations have declined, whilst only 8% are increasing (Battersby 2005).
Portugal: the population is suspected to be decreasing (M. Fernandes pers. comm. 2006). Considered Vulnerable at the national level, on the basis of suspected declines reaching 30% over three generations in the past or future (Cabral et al. 2005).
Spain: in some places it is increasing and others decreasing (J. Herrero pers. comm. 2006). Considered Vulnerable at the national level, on the basis of suspected declines of over 30% over the last three generations (Palomo and Gisbert 2002).
Belgium: evidence from wild cats found dead on roads indicated that the species is gradually expanding its range to the north and west. There are no data on population size (Libois 2006).
Germany: the population was recently estimated at 1,700-5,000 individuals (Knapp et al. 2000). The population is increasing and occupying new areas (M. Stubbe pers. comm. 2006).
Slovenia: the population is estimated (on the basis of density and habitat suitability) at no more than 2,000; it is stable. Recently expanded highways possibly pose some threat in south-east part of its high density range. (B. Kryštufek pers. comm. 2006)
Poland: estimated number of wildcats in Poland is between 100 and 150 individuals, estimated density is 1-1.3 per 1000 ha (Okarma et al. 2002). The current distribution of wildcat in the Polish Carpathians, mainly along the borders with Slovakia and Ukraine, shows that the Polish population forms a continuum with Slovak and Ukrainian populations. Together they constitute the northernmost part of the larger Carpathian population of this species. The species is decreasing and is considered endangered (EN) in Red Data Book of Poland (Wolsan et al. 2001).
Slovakia: the estimate of the Slovakian population in 2000 was about 1,500 individuals (unpublished data of the Slovak Environmental Agency: A. Olszanska pers. comm. 2006).
Serbia: there are large populations along the southern Danube (IUCN 2007).
Macedonia: the species is widespread (IUCN 2007).
Greece: the wild cat is widespread in continental Greece with sightings in all forested areas and many wetlands. There are apparently more sightings in north and north-east Greece, where the population density seems to be higher. The population trend has not been quantified but is believed to be stable. On Crete it occurs at low densities (G. Giannatos pers. comm. 2006).
Romania: the population is estimated to number c.10,000 individuals, but this is not based on quantitative data (Red Data Book of Romania).
Bulgaria: there are no quantitative data, but the species is considered relatively abundant (Spassov et al. 1997).
European Russia: the population size and trend have not been quantified, but there are thought to be large, relatively stable populations (IUCN 2007).

In Scotland, 88% of wild-living cats may be hybrids or feral domestic cats (Kitchener et al. 2005), and in Italy and Hungary the proportion of hybrids is estimated at 8% and 25-31% respectively (using genetic methods: Pierpaoli et al. 2003, Lecis et al. 2006). On the basis of museum specimens, the proportion of hybrids in Bulgaria was estimated at 8-10% (Spassov et al. 1997), 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 (Pierpaoli et al. 2003). In general the genetic distance to the domestic cat is larger in the north of the range than in the south (Pierpaoli et al. 2003). Eastern European populations are generally considered to be relatively pure (Nowell and Jackson 1996). Outside Europe, the extent of hybridization is considered likely to be lower, but still significant, by Nowell and Jackson (1996), noting reports from Pakistan, central Asia and India. Evidence of hybridization has been found in southern Africa (Yamaguchi et al. 2004, Stuart et al. in press) and North Africa (Stuart et al. in press). Assessing the status of the wildcat is difficult, because it is a cryptic species and, moreover, because it may be difficult for some experts to distinguish between specimens of European wildcat and domestic cat (Nowell and Jackson 1996). Morphological critera established by Kitchener et al. (2005) and genetic markers recommended by Driscoll et al. (2007) should help to resolve these problems.
Population Trend: Decreasing

Habitat and Ecology [top]

Habitat and Ecology: 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. African wildcats are found everywhere outside tropical rainforest, although thinly distributed in true desert (Nowell and Jackson 1996). The Chinese alpine steppe cat is restricted to the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau, and is found primarily in alpine meadow habitats from 2,500 to 5,000 m (He et al. 2004). Yin et al. (2007) obtained the first camera trap photos of a wild individual at 3,700 m. Asiatic wildcats have a different elevational range (up to 2,000-3,000 m), and are most typically associated with scrub desert (Nowell and Jackson 1996).

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 (Nowell and Jackson 1996, Sunquist and Sunquist 2002).

Phelan and Sliwa (2006) found large home ranges (52.7 km² for a radio-collared female) in desert habitat in the United Arab Emirates, larger than home ranges reported elsewhere in more optimal habitat - 6-10 km² for females in South Africa's Kalahari Gemsbok National Park (Herbst and Mills 2005 in Stuart et al. in press) and 1-2 km² for females in Scotland and France (Stahl et al. 1988, Macdonald et al. 2004).
Systems: Terrestrial

Threats [top]

Major Threat(s): Wildcats are most threatened by domestic cats. Hybridization is widespread; there may be very few genetically pure populations of Wildcats remaining (Nowell and Jackson 1996, Macdonald et al. 2004, Phelan and Sliwa 2006, Driscoll et al. 2007). Of all Wildcat subspecies analyzed, only the Chinese Alpine Steppe Cat, F. s. bieti, showed no evidence of genetic introgression of domestic cat genes, but the sample size was small (Driscoll et al. 2007). Feral cats compete with Wildcats for prey and space, and there is also a high potential for disease transmission between domestic cats and Wildcats (Nowell and Jackson 1996, Daniels et al. 1999, Macdonald et al. 2004).

Other threats include significant human-caused mortality, in Europe, especially road kills (Nowell and Jackson 1996, Lüps et al. 2002, Schulenberg 2005). The species is still considered a pest in Scotland and is illegally persecuted (Macdonald et al. 2004). Predator control measures in a number of European countries may result in this species being killed as bycatch. Wildcats are also killed as pests in southern Africa although this does not seem to have resulted in population declines (Stuart et al. in press). 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 (Nowell and Jackson 1996).

Large-scale poisoning campaigns to try to control populations of small mammals such as pikas, voles and moles have been conducted in the habitat of the Chinese Alpine Steppe Cat. Several different types of chemicals are in use which have been found to have adverse effects on predators. Although ecological methods of pest control have been urged by Chinese scientists, such campaigns continue and have eradicated potential prey such as pikas from large areas (Nowell and Jackson 1996, He et al. 2004). Skins of Chinese mountain cats have been encountered in small numbers in the illegal wildlife trade (Nowell and Jackson 1996, He et al. 2004).

Historically, habitat loss led to dramatic declines in Europe and Russia in the 18th to mid-20th centuries (Macdonald et al. 2004). However, wildcats can do well in cultivated landscapes which increase rodent densities (Sunquist and Sunquist 2002), although these are the areas where hybridization with domestic cats occurs and spreads.

Conservation Actions [top]

Conservation Actions: Included on CITES Appendix II. Wildcats are fully protected across most of its range in Europe and Asia, but only some of its African range (Nowell and Jackson 1996). It is listed on the EU Habitats and Species Directive (Annex IV) and the Bern Convention (Appendix II). It is classed as threatened at the national level in many European range states (IUCN 2007). In China, the Chinese Alpine Steppe cat is protected as a separate species under Category II. The 1992 meeting of the Cat Specialist Group in Beijing recommended upgrading to Category I, which requires permission of national, rather than provincial, authorities to hunt or trade (Nowell and Jackson 1996), but this has not yet been done. The species is legally protected in Afghanistan having been placed on the country's first Protected Species List in 2009, banning all hunting and trading of this species within Afghanistan. With so little information or data known on this species in Afghanistan, it is also proposed as a priority species for future study.

The main conservation need is to identify populations of genetically pure wildcats and attempt to prevent hybridization by neutering and removing feral domestic cats. However, such efforts are complicated by the difficulty in distinguishing wildcats from domestic cats, especially when some hybridization has already taken place (Macdonald et al. 2004).

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