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Believe it or not, the adorable looking cat in the photo above is not a domestic cat. That is a photo of an African Wildcat – the ancestor of today’s domestic cats. These were the cats that started it all!
Connecting the African Wildcat and Your Cat
Cats and humans have had a long, mysterious relationship of mutual admiration. Current research suggests that cats may have been first domesticated in Cyprus about 10,000 years ago. Unlike other domestic animals, it seems that cats may have domesticated themselves.
Scientists have been trying very hard to understand the relationship between cats and humans for a long time. In a study published in 2007 by the National Cancer Institute, Carlos Driscoll and his team attempted to use genetics to identify the closest ancestor of today’s domestic cat. The hope is to eventually map out the entire domestic cat genome and identify which genetic traits are responsible for the cats’ domestic behavior.
After testing the genes of 1,000 cats, there were 5 main wildcat species found to be related to domestic cats. All 5 of these wildcats are subspecies of the Felis Silvestris species:
- The African Wildcat ( Felis Silvestris Lybica)
- The South African Wildcat ( Felis Silvestris Cafia)
- The Asian Wildcat (Felis Silvestris Ornata)
- The Chinese Alpine Steppe Cat (Felis Silvestris Biete)
- The European Wildcat (Felis Silvestris Silvestris)
Driscoll and his team determined that the most likely ancestor of domestic cats (Felis Silvestris Catus) is the African Wildcat. It may be that all of the other subspecies of wildcats are also descendant from the African Wildcat. The theory is that wildcats first appeared on the fertile crescent and then began to move down into Africa, up into Europe, and then out to India, China, and finally Japan. Today, African Wildcats are spread throughout northern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula all the way to the Caspian Sea.
How do African Wildcat and domestic cats compare?
African Wildcats have a lot in common with domestic cats. Their look is very similar, complete with faint tabby markings. If you were to see one outside, you might think that it was just a large outdoor cat. They are most active in the evening, which is when they hunt. Their vision is 7 times better than a human’s in the dark (a domestic cat’s vision is 6 times better)! Rodents are the favored prey of African Wildcats, but they will also eat birds and insects (just like their domestic counterparts).
There are some very important distinctions between the African Wildcat and domestic cats too. The biggest difference is behavioral; These kitties are not likely to want you to pet them. They are independent, territorial, and aggressive. African Wildcats are also a bit longer than a typical domestic cat with a length (head and body) of 16- 26″ (40.6-66.5 cm) and a tail length of 9.4-14″ (2401-36.8 cm). They have long, slender legs and high shoulder blades so their walk resembles that of a cheetah. The reddish color on the backs of their ears can also be used to tell them apart.
Other Interesting Wildcat Facts
All wildcats are very adaptable creatures. They are found in a variety of colors, patterns, and fur lengths that help them blend into their surroundings.
- The distinction between the African Wildcat and the South African Wildcat is not very clear. It was only recently that they were officially considered two separate subspecies.
- The biggest threat to the African Wildcat population is the feral domestic cat population. Domestic cats are interbreeding with wildcats at such a rate that scientists are uncertain if any pure lines of wildcat still exist. African Wildcats are not considered to be endangered.
- The species designation “Silvestris” means “of the forest.” This is because wildcats tend to prefer forested areas.
Do these wildcats remind you of your kitties?
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