Smaller but Rare Species of Wildcats don’t get Protected as Much, Research Says 

Talking about big cats would surely pique everyone’s interest. They’re known for their increasing vulnerability and conflict with humans, so people will always try their best to conserve and protect them.  

The same thing, however, doesn’t really apply to smaller wildcats. According to a new study from the Uppsala University, only 6-11% of the areas in the Indian subcontinent protect three rare, small cat species, despite the fact that this place is a hotspot for wild felines. One of the main causes for that is lack of knowledge. 

In the new study, the researchers explored the situation of Prionailurus genus that live in the Indian subcontinent. The family includes the rusty-spotted cat (P. rubiginosus), the fishing cat (P. viverrinus), a species commonly found in wetlands, and the leopard cat (P.bengalensis). 

Professor at Uppsala University Mats Björklund said, “This study is important because it shows that many small, rare and elusive cats in the Indian subcontinent don’t get as much attention as the more spectacular big cats. 

“Nevertheless, the need to protect them is just as pressing, so the number and size of the protected areas must be increased to include more biotopes containing these species.” 

Before the study, scientists used geographic coordinates of sites where the various species have been seen over the years as well as more recent information collected from camera-trap surveys. After, they developed ecological niche models, which they used to identify zones with environmental conditions that suit these species individually. 

The researchers also used the models in order to get a better understanding of ecological factors like climate, land cover, and land use, that would prevent the species from living in those areas. Such information could provide guides and data for future conservation efforts. 

 

Rusty spotted cat by Davidvraju Wikimedia Commons

 

What the models showed the scientist 

According to the scientists, the models showed them that the most severe threats vary for the species in this study. For example, the leopard cat is most threatened by a warmer climate. Its habitat or range, the mountainous areas in the Western and Eastern Ghats, are starting to develop higher temperatures than this species can withstand. 

On the other hand, the rusty-spotted cat has become limited due to human cultivation of the land, especially in areas with intensive irrigation. This fact leads to a concern because of the rising proportion of farmland in the region. Meanwhile, the fishing cat is the only species which has had the smallest proportion of its habitat protected so far.  

The models in this study also revealed that the species, although closely related to each other, would respond differently to environmental change. These smaller cats may be overlooked because of their size and coat, which can resemble common, domestic or certain breeds of pet cats.  

People who don’t know about them may be dismissive about their existence and whereabouts. this leads to a greater need for protection. Moreover, to cover their main biotopes, future protection must cover larger areas and more habitats accessible to these species. 

Lead author André P. Silva, a doctoral student at Uppsala University said, “Some of these species, like the fishing cat, are extremely rare and probably need protection for long-term survival. 

“The fact that only a very small proportion of the most suitable habitat for this species is protected is a warning sign that the protected-area network in the Indian subcontinent needs to be reviewed. 

“Species like the rusty-spotted cat exist only in this region, so to ensure we don’t lose them it’s essential to create more protected areas.” 

 

Are smaller species of wildcats the ancestor of our baby cats? 

There are many theories and hypotheses as to where domesticated cats come from. Some have theorized that the domesticated cats in Asia are related to the elusive Chinese mountain cat of the Tibetan plateau. However, a new genetic study has determined that this is not the case. 

Previous research suggested that all modern domesticated cats descended from the African wildcat, a subspecies of wildcat that appears to have first been domesticated in the Middle East around 6,400 years ago. The recent finding supports the preceding conclusion. 

Researchers collected and sequenced the genetic material of 27 Chinese mountain cats, 239 Chinese domestic cats and four Asiatic wildcats. Since the Chinese mountain cat is so rare and difficult to track down, the scientists had to colect samples from museum specimens, roadkill, and zoo animals.  

Why the Chinese mountain cats, you may ask? People have been speculating about them because there’s a 5,300-year history between humans and cats in China. Also, this species had never been included in past comparative genetic studies until now despite the thousands of years relationship in this country alone. 

As mentioned, the Chinese mountain cat isn’t the direct ancient progenitor of domestic cats in China.  however, the analysis revealed that the two cats had been interbreeding for around 30 generations. 

This timeline coincides with an increase in the human population in the mountain cat’s range along the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau in the 1950s, and likely an introduction of a large number of domesticated cats. 

 

 

Making it harder to let the species be exclusive and maintain population 

It’s pretty safe to say that current, modern domestic cats in China have a bit of a Chinese mountain cat genetics and they descended from that species. However, this is not actually good news, as more interbreeding with domestic cats will lead to the wildcat’s distinctive genes being eroded over time. 

Additionally, the genetic results suggest the Chinese mountain cat is a subspecies of wildcat rather than its own separate species.  

This could have a negative impact for the conservation of the Chinese mountain cat, which is listed as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and is estimated to have a global population of less than 10,000 individuals. 

The decline of this wildcat’s population is mainly caused by habitat loss, rodenticide poisoning and illegal hunting for its fluffy coat. 

Despite the fact that these cats have a distinctive appearance compared to common tabby domestic cats, particularly their brown coat and fluffy, ringed tail, and glacial blue eyes, nobody really bats an eye to them because they’re not a separate species. 

While it may not look like a big deal, the uncertainty to determine whether these cats are a separate species or a subspecies can have important legal ramifications for conservation. This new research and previous genetic studies haven’t decided to solve the problem regarding the classification of the Chinese mountain cat. 

According to wildlife ecologist Jim Sanderson, these Tibetan Plateau-dwelling wildcats have to be declared its own species. Sanderson argued, “We’re living in an age of extinction. The Chinese mountain cat deserves every bit as much attention as the panda.” 

 

Sources

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/11/201120113844.htm  

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/elusive-chinese-mountain-cats-arent-domestic-cats-ancestors-180978077/  

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