Wild Cat Behaviour
A Matter of Breeding
One of the most important factors leading to a strong species population is that of genetic diversity - some small populations within the cat family however are not only under attack from the pressures of hunting and habitat loss, but also from inbreeding and hybridisation.
Some 4000 years ago the first 'domestic' cats began to evolve in and around Ancient Egypt. It is now commonly believed that the African Wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica) and possibly, in part, the Jungle Cat , (Felis chaus), formed the basis of today's domestic cat (felis catus) from which it evolved over an extended period of several thousand years. As the domestic cat developed it underwent a number of morphological adaptations which today marks the ancestral african wildcat and the modern domestic as two distinct species. A less strictly carnivorous diet, has led to a modified digestive system - through generally being cared for and not having to survive by its own wits, its behaviour has become less aggressive and body and brain size have been reduced. It is even more ironic then, that today the survival of the african wildcat along with its Asian and European counterparts is threatened by its distant relative, Felis catus - the domestic cat.
In a world where human habitation is forever encroaching into the natural habitat of the wildcat, it is increasingly more likely that wildcats will mate with domestic and feral domestic cats - the offspring will share the genes of the wild and domestic cat. From then it is purely a matter of numbers - the genes of the smaller population, that of the wildcat will become diluted and over an extended period, many sub-species may eventually disappear.
In the United Kingdom, such hybridisation has led to the controversy of the 'Kellas Cat'. The Scottish wildcat, noted by some as a distinct sub-species (F.s.grampia) shows a slightly darker coloration than that of its close neighbour, the European wildcat (F.s.silvestris) - however during the eighties, sightings of a pure black wildcat were reported. The existence of a melanistic wildcat had been debated for a long time but no actual specimens had been found. After detailed examination of eight dead Kellas specimens it was concluded that seven were domestic/wildcat hybrids and one, a pure melanistic wildcat.
The problem with genes
If hybridisation marks a threat to the purity of the various sub-species of Felis silvestris, then at the opposite end of the scale a similar threat can be found in genetic stagnation and inbreeding.
Recent research has revealed that individuals within the cheetah populations of Eastern and Southern Africa are genetically almost identical - there seems to be a very low level of genetic diversity within the species, a situation most commonly found in special 'inbred' laboratory animals. The exact reason for this phenomenon is unclear but it is believed that in the distant past cheetah populations may have shrunk to such a low level that genetic diversity was reduced to a minimum. Such a low level of genetic variation between individuals places the species as a whole at risk - simplistically, the less the genetic diversity, the smaller the probability of the species being able adapt or to recover form wide spread disease.
The King cheetah found only in parts of South Eastern Africa, does however show distinct differences in markings - the normal spotted markings fuse to show elongated stripes along the back and there is a more pronounced mane around the neck. This was once believed to be a distinct species but recent research has revealed it to be no more than a mutation of one of the genes that controls coat patterns.
Inbreeding problems occur in any population that has reach extremely low levels. The Gir Forrest Reserve in India is home to the only population of Asian Lions found in the wild today. The total wild population of the asian lion is around 250 and research has found similar low levels of genetic diversity as those found in the cheetah. Captive asian lions have been bred successfully for many years and conservationists have considered that through this, survival of the sub-species would be assured even in if the wild population were lost. Recent research however has revealed that the captive population, which originated from only five founder animals, are in fact mostly hybrid asian/african and stocks of pure bred asian lions must once again be built up.
The Cat as Predator - It has often been said of the 'Big Cats' - and of many of the smaller wild cats too - that they are the perfect predator, a killing machine, designed with every part specially tuned for the art of hunting and catching prey.
Fur and Markings - The fur of the cat serves two distinct purposes - firstly it protects the animal against the extremes of its environment and secondly serves as camouflage to make the cat less easy to spot against the background of its habitat.
The Range of the cat - In terms of the wild cat, the word 'range, can have two distinct meanings. Firstly the range of a wild cat species can be interpreted as its distribution or geographical spread across a large area - 'ranging' across countries or contents. Secondly the 'home range' of an individual wild cat is broadly its 'neighbourhood' - the area in which it lives.
The Social Cat - It is said that cats in the wild are solitary animals - whilst this is true for the majority of the wild cat species for most of the time - there are times when the cat can become a 'social' animal, sharing its daily life with others of its species.
A Matter of Breeding - One of the most important factors leading to a strong species population is that of genetic diversity - some small populations within the cat family however are not only under attack from the pressures of hunting and habitat loss, but also from inbreeding and hybridisation.
Cats in Captivity - For thousands of years man has caged and enclosed many of the wild cat species. To varying degrees cats have been seen as status symbols to the rich, caged exhibits of 'dangerous' exotic animals or reluctant performers in circus extravaganzas - today their place in captivity has a whole different meaning - survival.