The pretty little kitties that people calmly have purring on their laps come from wild little beasts that still exist today. Yes, indeed, some small cats have not been domesticated and are out and about on savannahs, streams, bogs, and open air fending for themselves in the wild. So how did the cat go from being wild to domesticated?
The wildcat is located from Scotland down to South Africa (longitudinally in these areas) and from Portugal to the Caucasus Mountains (laterally in these areas). About 4-5,000 years ago, Egyptian settlements are thought to have had a very large rat infestation. Only cats that had a genetic predilection to not fear humans would take advantage of the large rat population and get their fill of rats. These cats, with their tolerance of humans, were predisposed to being domesticated. It wasn’t until the Romans took the wildcat from Egypt that it began to be considered a pet. Romans then began taking their new housepets to areas throughout their empire all the way up to through Scotland. But what happens when a housecat gets into the wild where “wildcats” already exist?
Housecats that get into the wild revert back to a wild state. They seem to mate easily and well with the wildcat, though the wildcat has reduced fertility due to its more arduous lifestyle. Only very slight variation exists, which allows wildcats and domesticated cats to interbreed. This is to be expected being that evolution from one species to another usually takes millions of years- not simply 1 million years. Thus domesticated cats still have features that the wildcat possesses, which includes a uniform brindle pattern (most likely serving to camoflauge them). They are also notably more aggressive, less tamable, and have a smaller intestine than the domesticated cat. Also, the wildcat is said to have a distinct skull morphology along with some unique genetic characters (mainly single nucleotide polymorphisms).
But then if the wildcat has this slightly different morphology and colour pattern, how do we have such diverse cats? The colouration that wildcats have are meant to protect it in the wild, whereas domesticated cats do not need to worry about this as much. Domestic cats of variable colour often display colours that would be recessive to the brindle pattern seen in wildcats. Some colours also may have newly developed during the process of domestication. In fact, it is thought that coat colour and the “tameness” of cats is inherited together. It has been proposed that the coat pigment melanin affects an animal’s personality.
But how do you protect the wildcat if it looks so much like the domestic cat? In regions such as on Scottish grouse moors, wildcats are protected by law, whereas “wild domesticated cats” are considered pests that can be shot if trespassing. But how would a gunman correctly differentiate them? Some of the only true ways of seeing their differences require up-close looks at their skull morphology, genetic testing, and intestine length analysis- something you can’t do if it’s alive!
Even though it is difficult to preserve wildcats in environments where domestics overlap their territory, we at least can boast no endangerment (though populations are decreasing). We are all about keeping creatures content, whether they be wild, domestic, or confused about which it wants to be like some of our small cat friends!