Conservation of threatened Wildcats


The Scottish Wildcat is a member of the European Wildcat subspecies,  Felis silvestris silvestris. Within Britain the range of the  Wildcat has been dramatically reduced, such that it exists only in the highlands of Scotland. The Wildcat is Britain's only remaining large wild predator. The Scottish Wildcat has great cultural significance and is considered a flagship species that embodies the “independent, mysterious and wild spirit of the Highlands”.

Although Scottish Wildcats look similar to domestic cats, they differ morphologically, in their behaviour and are genetically distinct. This project aims to define a clear molecular taxonomy  for the Scottish Wildcat (and all F.s. silvestris), which will assist with the implementation of legal protection of the species.

For more information on current conservation efforts to save the Scottish Wildcat, please visit:


Wildcat conservation

Clockwise From Top Left:

The Southern African Wildcat (Felis silvestris cafra). This image was captured at Kgalagadi NP, South Africa by Aaron Greenville.|  The Scottish Wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris) with the distinctive fur patterning of the species noted. Wildcats have widely separated rings on tail, ruffled “tiger stripe” flanks, no white patches and a thick blunt-tipped tail (Photo: Laurie Campbell).|  A close up of the Scottish Wildcat (Photo: Peter Cairns).|  A captive breeding program is currently underway to help conserve the Scottish Wildcat (Photo: Peter Cairns).

conservation of the Scottish Wildcat

The primary threat facing the Southern African Wildcat (Felis silvestris cafra) is thought to be hybridisation with domestic cats (Felis silvestris catus). The spread of feral domesticated cats into remote areas is expected to increase the rate of hybridisation between these two genetically distinct subspecies, however there is no data to support this assumption.

In this study, we plan to survey populations of the Southern African Wildcat by collecting scat samples using scent-tracking dogs that are trained to detect mammalian scats. This will allow us to determine the population size of Wildcats relative to domestic cats and also define the rate of hybridisation. Because all scat samples will be of unknown origin, we will use molecular taxonomy to identify the species that generated the scat. This project is in conjunction with  the Felis Barcode (below) and will be the first field test of those methods.

conservation of the Southern African Wildcat

Taxonomy of the Felis genus is hotly debated and frequently revised. Taxonomic confusion has been exacerbated by the difficulties in creating definitive morphological species descriptions, which has previously lead to the number of taxonomic groups ballooning to over 25 species and subspecies. The most recent taxonomic revision, supported by genetic research, suggests that there are just nine taxonomic groups within Felis (see table below). There is a great need to develop a definitive genetic barcode that will utilise maternally inherited mitochondrial markers, paternally inherited Y chromosome markers and X chromosome markers to define species and detect hybrids. This will also assist efforts to survey Wildcat populations using non-invasive survey methods such as scat and hair collection.

The Felis Barcode

Collaborators: Ross McEwing, Carlos Driscoll, Jill Pecon-Slattery, Paul O'Donoghue.

Full list of all collaborators available here.

Collaborators: Anne Schmidt-Küntzel, Paul O'Donoghue.

Full list of all collaborators available here.















    -- catus (subtype)

Common name   

Sand Cat

Jungle Cat

Black-footed Cat

European Wildcat

Central Asian Wildcat

Chinese Mountain Cat

Southern African Wildcat

Near Eastern Wildcat

Domestic Cat







North Africa & SW Asia

North Africa & SW Asia

Sub-Saharan Africa


Central Asia


Sub-Saharan Africa

Near and Middle East

World Wide

* Please note alternate spelling in literature as lybica.

Collaborators: Ross McEwing, Carlos Driscoll, Jill Pecon-Slattery, Anne Schmidt-Küntzel, Paul O'Donoghue.

Full list of all collaborators available here.

Publications from these Investigations

1. McEwing R, Kitchener A, Holleley CE, Kilshaw K, O’Donoghue P. 2012. An allelic discrimination SNP assay for differentiating the mitochondrial lineage of European wildcats from introduced domestic cats. Conservation Genetics Resources 4: 163–165.