Although it might look like a house cat ready to curl up on your lap, the European wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris) is a wild, nondomesticated species. It lives in a variety of habitats across Europe, at elevations ranging from sea level to a documented 2,250 meters (7,382 feet) in the Pyrenees, a mountain range that separates Spain from France.   

The European wildcat has many close genetic relatives fanned out across Europe, Asia, and Africa including the Asiatic wildcat and African wildcat. It is also closely related to the domestic cat. Scientists have done much work in the last few decades to better understand the geographic range of the different subspecies of wildcat—an important step in understanding populations of different animals and assessing the health of distinct populations.

They are distinctly larger than domestic house cats in size and weight, with longer fur and a bushy tail. Scientists have had difficulty estimating their true population size in Europe because of crossbreeding between wildcats and domestic cats.  

The European wildcat will prey on rodents, rabbits, and other small prey including birds, although they have been observed to scavenge through human refuse near urban areas. Car strikes have been a significant cause of fatality. A population of the cats is present on the British Isles in Scotland, although it has been suggested that this population should be considered yet another distinct subspecies because it has been isolated there for so long.

  1. What solution has been suggested by conservationists who would like to reduce the rates of hybridization between the European wildcat and the domestic cat?

    • Answer

      Hybridization with domestic cats is the major threat to the survival of pure wildcat populations in Europe. Conservationists have suggested preventing hybridization by neutering and removing feral domestic cats from certain European wildcat habitats if necessary. 

  2. How are domestic cats related to the European wildcats?

    • Answer

      Scientists studying the domestic cat (Felis silvestris catus) estimate that it domesticated around 10,000 years ago in the Middle East from the African wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica). Both the present-day domestic cat and African wildcat subspecies are closely related to the European wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris) and can crossbreed.

  3. How does the cultivation of land affect European wildcats?

    • Answer

      Many European countries have more than a third of their land area that is under cultivation. It had been understood that European wildcats mainly used the forest for hunting, and so cultivation of land would be in competition with available habitat. Although recent studies have shown that what matters most is an availability of prey and that forests do not show a higher abundance of wildcats compared to cultivated land. More studies are necessary to understand the situation better.

domesticate
Verb

to tame or adapt for human use.

fatality
Noun

a death.

genetic
Adjective

having to do with genes, inherited characteristics or heredity.

geographic range
Noun

distance at which a specific light (such as that from a lighthouse) is visible to the naked eye.

Noun

environment where an organism lives throughout the year or for shorter periods of time.

isolate
Verb

to set one thing or organism apart from others.

Pyrenees
Noun

mountain range between Spain and France that stretch from the Bay of Biscay to the Gulf of Lion.

scavenge
Verb

to feed on dead or decaying material.

subspecies
Noun

(subsp.) group of organisms within a single species, often distinguished by geographic isolation.