Domestic cats introduced from the Near East and wild cats native to Europe did not interbreed until the 1960s, despite being exposed to each other for 2,000 years, according to two research papers published today in Current Biology.
An international team has found new archaeological and genetic evidence that is transforming our understanding of the history of cats in Europe. The team analyzed and analyzed wild and domestic cats, including 48 modern individuals and 258 ancient specimens excavated from 85 archaeological sites over the past 8,500 years. They then assessed patterns of hybridization after domestic cats were introduced to Europe more than 2,000 years ago and came into contact with native European wild cats.
The results of the studies show that, since their introduction, domestic cats and European wild cats have generally avoided mating. About 50 years ago in Scotland, however, everything changed. Perhaps as a result of declining feral cat populations and a lack of mating opportunities with other feral cats, interbreeding rates between feral and domestic cats increased rapidly.
Jo Howard-McCombe from the University of Bristol and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland explains: “Wildcats and domestic cats hybridized very recently. It is clear that hybridization is a result of modern threats common to many of our native species. Habitat loss and persecution have pushed wildcats to the brink of extinction in Britain. It’s exciting that we can use genetic data to look back at their population history and use what we’ve learned to protect Scotland’s wildcats.”
Professor Gregor Larsson, from the University of Oxford, says: “We tend to think of cats and dogs as very different. Our data indicate that, at least in terms of avoiding interbreeding with their wild counterparts, dogs and cats are much more similar to each other than to all other domesticated animals. Understanding why this is true will be fun to explore.”
Professor Mark Beaumont, from the University of Bristol, adds: “The nature of the Scottish wildcat and its relationship to wild domestic cats has long been a mystery. Modern molecular methods and mathematical modeling have helped to understand what the Scottish wildcat really is and the threats that have led to its decline.”
Domestic animals, including cattle, sheep, goats, dogs and pigs have been closely associated with humans since the emergence of agricultural communities more than 10,000 years ago. These close relationships led to the human-mediated dispersal of plants and animals far beyond their native ranges.
Over the past decade, genome sequences of modern and ancient individuals have revealed that as domesticated animals moved into new areas, they interbred with closely related wild species, which has dramatically changed their genomes. This pattern has been observed in every domestic animal except dogs. It would be fascinating to learn whether domestic cats interbred with European wildcats, but the decline of native wildcat populations across Europe and the lack of ancient cat genomes has made this difficult to do.
The two studies were carried out at the universities of Munich, Bristol, Oxford and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland.