A GROUND-BREAKING genetic test has been developed for Scottish wildcats that could help arrest its decline in the wild.
The wildcats are threatened by interbreeding with domestic cats. There are thought to be fewer than 100 true wildcats left in the wild, with one study suggesting there could be as few as 35.
The new test – the first genetic test in the world for a wildcat – can show definitively whether an individual cat is purebred wildcat or a hybrid carrying domestic cat DNA. It will allow for the testing of animals both in captivity and in the wild, and for measures to be taken to protect those true wildcats that remain.
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The test has been developed by Dr Paul O'Donoghue, from Chester University's Biological Sciences Department, and data analysts at FIOS Genomics in Edinburgh. It allows for an individual cat's 63,000 genes to be compared against the genetic model of a pure wildcat, showing how much wildcat DNA and how much domestic cat DNA that individual holds.
Up until now, the best way to define a purebred wildcat has been by examining their pelage, or coat characteristics, as well as the fusion of bones on their head and shape of their jaw.
Dr Andrew Kitchener, curator at National Museums Scotland, along with Dr O'Donoghue, used these techniques to search for the best example of a purebred wildcat held in a British museum, examining samples going back 140 years. The best one served as the reference sample for the test; DNA was extracted from it and the whole genome scanned. A full genetic screen of the captive wildcat population is now planned.
Dr O'Donoghue said: "Unless decisive action is taken, the wildcat could be declared extinct with the next 12 to 24 months."
He added: "It is now of the utmost importance that large-scale live trapping takes place to find and test the last remaining wildcats. The only hope for these cats is to be placed into protected regions, the only one of which currently is the area we have been developing in the West Highlands, which will be free of feral and hybrid cats, or to bring them into an expertly managed breeding programme.
"At the moment, all remaining pure cats outside of such areas are arguably doomed."
Neville Buck, studbook keeper for the Scottish wildcat at The Aspinall Foundation, said: "It is possible that the very best Scottish wildcats in captivity could be in the hands of private holders and enthusiasts.
"I would like to appeal to those individuals to come forward and help us to identify the purest wildcats and save this iconic species."
A new conservation plan for wildcats is in development, bringing together Scottish Natural Heritage, the Scottish Wildcat Association and other conservation, land management and animal welfare groups.