Genetic Research to support the Scottish wildcat

- 17th Nov, 2022

In the wild, wildcats crossbreed (hybridise) with domestic cats causing a major threat to the last remaining wildcats in the UK.

The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland has been using conservation genetic research to combat the threat of hybridisation to the Scottish wildcat since 2013. Hybridisation can only be understood with the help of genetic analysis, and this has been used to provide advice to the conservation breeding programme and to wildcat conservation on the ground.

The genetic work led by the RZSS WildGenes lab at Edinburgh Zoo, in conjunction with the Scottish wildcat breeding programme coordinator based at Highland Wildlife Park, has led to improved management of the breeding programme, better understanding of the status of wildcats in the wild and has ultimately laid the foundation for the first reintroduction of wildcats to Scotland due to commence in 2023.

Published in 2019, the work confirms for the first time, that most wild-living cats are extensively hybridised and that this is a phenomenon occurring within the last 100 years.

Genetic evidence was critical in informing the 2019 IUCN-SSC Cat Specialist Group status review of Scottish wildcats, which stated that populations were no longer viable and laid out possible future paths to recovery. This includes reinforcement of the wild population with animals from captivity (following other preparatory actions at the release site). These actions are now being pursued under the Saving Wildcats LIFE project led by RZSS.

During the course of the work, RZSS developed a genetic screening protocol for wildcats and have used the test on over 800 wild-living, captive and historical museum samples of wildcat to establish historical baselines for the species and the contemporary picture of hybridisation.

The genetic test developed by RZSS WildGenes has been used to provide real-time management advice to support the Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan throughout its duration and is still in use today. This has been done via the monitoring of cats within the designated wildcat ‘Priority Areas’ across Scotland and in the selection of wildcats for the conservation breeding programme. Through this work, and screening of 12 candidate cats from outside the Priority Areas, an additional two wild founders to the captive breeding population have been found, adding critical genetic diversity. 100% of the captive population of wildcats in the UK has also been screened for hybridism.

This work has allowed thousands of genetic markers to be used to generate higher certainty around wildcat hybridisation testing to date the (recent) timing of hybridisation in Scotland more accurately and assist with reconstruction of the wildcat studbook, leading to the generation of a Long-Term Management Plan for wildcats.

RZSS submitted this project to the BIAZA Awards Research Category for 2022 and won a Silver award. 

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