An intrepid team of biologists embarked on an extensive genetic survey of Chinese cats to determine the true identity of the Chinese mountain cat, an enigmatic feline that inhabits a swath of the Tibetan Plateau. It turns out that the creature is its own wildcat subspecies—Felis silvestris bieti—and, despite its resemblance to pets, had no bearing on cat domestication.
With a thick, striped tail, lynx-like ears, and striking light-blue eyes, the Chinese mountain cat certainly resembles a few different felids, but researchers have never been certain where exactly this cat fits on the phylogenetic tree. Previously, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature declared the mountain cat its own species—Felis bieti—rather than a subspecies of the Felis silvestris wildcats. To try to figure out the cat’s true place, a team spend two years collecting blood, saliva, and skin from cats all over China. They included hundreds of house cats and wildcats, cats from zoos and museums, and cats found dead on the sides of roads. Their results are published today in Science Advances.
Wildcats big and small are at risk from various human-induced threats, including habitat loss, poaching, and loss of genetic integrity through mating with feral cats. In the case of the Chinese mountain cat, the researchers wrote, the aggressive spread of free-ranging feral cats means the species could hybridize, as domestic cats did with European wildcats.
“This contemporary genetic interaction between wildcats and domestic cats raises the prospect of disrupted wildcat genetic integrity, an issue with profound conservation implications,” study co-author Shu-Jin Luo, a conservation biologist at Peking University in China, said in an email.
The threat of genetic admixture isn’t just hypothetical. The team reported observations of cats that were seemingly the product of domestic kitties and wildcats in Northwest China. The proximity of Asiatic wildcats and Chinese mountain cats has meant those species genetically intermingled in the past, according to the team’s new analysis. Now, the animals live in largely separate ranges.
The research shows that “genetically distinct cat populations interbred extensively in the past, and this happened not just between wild and domestic cats, but also between wildcats,” said Claudio Ottoni, a paleogeneticist at the Sapienza University of Rome who was not affiliated with the new paper, in an email. “It would be interesting to dig deeper in time with more ancient samples and investigate the genetic variation of wild and domestic cats in the region to uncover pictures that sometimes can be barely anticipated when using only modern (or anyway not very ancient) genetic data.”
The team’s findings also corroborate previous research that pegged African wildcats (Felis silvestris lybica) as being the progenitors of domestic cats. Previous papers had suggested the Chinese mountain cat’s role in domestication was extremely unlikely if the domestic cat arose in the Near East or Egypt, and this new paper affirms that. There has been some debate as to whether cats originated in one place or had multiple domestication events; this team of researchers found no genetic difference between domestic cats from China and those from other parts of the world, suggesting they all arose from the same source.
Luo noted that there are no Chinese mountain cat populations in zoos. All 27 mountain cat specimens included in the study were either from specimens or actual wild animals, and they were compared with four Asiatic wildcats and nearly 250 domestic cats. The new genetic analysis is a valuable asset in understanding how such a hard-to-access species relates to its nearest relatives, and how conservationists may be able to help protect it going forward.