Wildcat genetics

My second meeting of the trip was with Carsten Nowack at the Senckenberg Research Institute in Gelnhausen, just outside Frankfurt. Carsten is a conservation geneticist who has analysed many wildcat samples from Germany and elsewhere in mainland Europe. Carsten was an extremely friendly and welcoming host, who has always been interested in the causes of hybridisation. The challenge of studying hybridisation in Germany is that there are too few hybrids! Carsten was surprised to hear that the level of hybridisation in Scotland is so extreme that all ‘wildcats’ are hybrids, and as such the definition and identification of wildcats in Scotland is extremely challenging, as is the characterisation of ‘hybrids’.

A taxidermy European wildcat (hunting a vole) from the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt.

Carsten explained that the wildcat has been recovering and recolonising areas in Germany for many years, potentially since before legal protection in 1933. There are two genetically distinct populations in Germany: one in Central Germany (Harz Mountains, Thuringia areas), thought to perhaps have originated from Eastern wildcat populations, and a larger population (covering an area including southwestern/western Germany, Luxembourg, and northeastern France). These are regions with large contiguous areas of deciduous or mixed woodland, although wildcats are increasingly being found in the more open habitats in between. Despite evidence of occasional instances of recent hybridisation between wildcats and domestic cats, these events appear relatively rare and have not led to widespread introgression (repeated/continuous hybridisation events). There are reportedly no human-wildcat conflicts in Germany, and wildcat populations have not been subjected to hunting or persecution for almost a century.

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