New papers shed light on wildcat mystery

New research from the Institute for Statistical Science has shown that wildcats in Britain lived alongside domestic cats since their introduction 2,000 years by the Romans, but only started interbreeding 60 years ago.

Dan Lawson worked with Mark Beaumont from Biology and NERC-funded Bristol PhD student Jo Howard-McCombe from the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), as well as an international team of researchers to establish this.

The Scottish Wildcat is on the brink of extinction in the UK due to hybridization with domestic cats caused by persecution and habitat loss. To save Britain’s largest mammal predator and preserve the ecosystem it is part of, we need to understand the threats it faces. One critical issue highlighted is that domestic cats brought disease, resulting in hybrids being fitter than pure wildcats. This leads us to wonder: can we breed back the Wildcats, whilst keeping the resistances to domestic cat disease?

Ancient DNA from cats buried during and before the Roman occupation of Britain, as well as museum specimens from the last century, lets us be confident about what Wildcat and Domestic genomes looked like in the past. By applying mathematical techniques developed in 2010 by Dan Lawson in a postdoc funded by Professor Peter Green at the School of Mathematics, the team were able to accurately date the recent hybridization by using the length of shared DNA segments, which get broken up each generation.

The authors wrote an accessible summary in The Conversation and Nature News reported on this story.

The original research articles are in Current Biology, in news items regarding Genetic swamping of the critically endangered Scottish wildcat was recent and accelerated by disease and Limited historical admixture between European wildcats and domestic cats.