Wildcats are usually gray-brown and have bushy tails and a clearly-defined pattern of black stripes that cover their entire body. They have short soft fur. Their color is like that of a domestic tabby cat, which makes them hard to see within their forest homes. European wildcats have winter fur which is thick and sometimes makes them look bigger than other wildcats.
Wildcats in Asia have a background color in their fur that is more yellow or reddish, with a pattern overlaying the color of dark spots that sometimes tend to converge into stripes. Wildcats in Africa have lighter-colored fur, ranging from sandy yellow to brown and gray, with darker spots and stripes. On the backs of their ears, the fur has a typical reddish tint.
The wildcat and the other members of the cat family had a common ancestor about 10–15 million years ago. The European wildcat evolved during the Cromerian Stage about 866,000 to 478,000 years ago; its direct ancestor was Felis lunensis. The silvestris and lybica lineages probably diverged about 173,000 years ago. In this article, Pritish Kumar describes Wildcat’s lifestyle, diet, distribution, and all the things which give you complete knowledge about them.
Wildcats live throughout southwestern Asia, continental Europe, and in Africa in the savannah regions. They inhabit desert regions and are restricted to waterways and mountainous areas. European wildcats live primarily in broad-leaved and mixed forests. They avoid intensively cultivated areas and settlements. Wildcats are also found in Mediterranean scrubland, riparian forest, and along sea coasts.
The wildcat has pointed ears, which are moderate in length and broad at the base. Its whiskers are white, number 7 to 16 on each side and reach 5–8 cm (2.0–3.1 in) in length on the muzzle. Whiskers are also present on the inner surface of the paw and measure 3–4 cm (1.2–1.6 in). Its eyes are large, with vertical pupils and yellowish-green irises. The eyelashes range from 5–6 cm (2.0–2.4 in) in length, and can number six to eight per side.
The European wildcat has a greater skull volume than the domestic cat, a ratio known as Schauenberg’s index. Further, its skull is more spherical in shape than that of the jungle cat (F. chaus) and leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis). Its dentition is relatively smaller and weaker than the jungle cat’s.
Both wildcat species are larger than the domestic cat. The European wildcat has relatively longer legs and a more robust build compared to the domestic cat. The tail is long, and usually slightly exceeds one-half of the animal’s body length. The species size varies according to Bergmann’s rule, with the largest specimens occurring in cool, northern areas of Europe and Asia such as Mongolia, Manchuria and Siberia.
Males measure 43–91 cm (17–36 in) in head to body length, 23–40 cm (9.1–15.7 in) in tail length, and normally weigh 5–8 kg (11–18 lb). Females are slightly smaller, measuring 40–77 cm (16–30 in) in body length and 18–35 cm (7.1–13.8 in) in tail length, and weighing 3–5 kg (6.6–11.0 lb).
Both sexes have two thoracic and two abdominal teats. Both sexes have pre-anal glands, consisting of moderately sized sweat and sebaceous glands around the anal opening. Large-sized sebaceous and scent glands extend along the full length of the tail on the dorsal side. Male wildcats have pre-anal pockets on the tail, activated upon reaching sexual maturity, play a significant role in reproduction and territorial marking.
Habits and Lifestyle
Wildcats are normally active at night, dusk, or dawn, but can also be active during the day, especially in areas where there are not many humans. Asiatic wildcats especially will often be active during the day. They often travel far at night seeking prey. They are mainly solitary, except during the mating period.
Within its own territory, the wildcat deposits scent marks at different sites, and they may also leave visual markers on trees by scratching them as well as leaving scent through glands on its paws. They shelter in the hollows of fallen or old trees, rock fissures, and nests or earth that have been abandoned by other animals, never digging its own burrow.
Diet and Nutrition
Small rodents (mice, rats, and voles) are the primary prey of the wildcat, followed by birds (especially waterfowl such as ducks, galliformes, passerines, and pigeons), dormice, hares, insectivores, and nutria.
Wildcats are polygynous. At the time a female is ready to mate, males in the area gather near her and compete for access. The wildcat has an estrus period in December to February and another one in May to July. The gestation period lasts for 60 to 68 days. Litters range in size from 1 to 7 kittens. The young start hunting alongside their mothers when they are 60 days old, and after 140 to 150 days will begin to move independently.
Kittens are more or less fully grown at 10 months, though growth of the skeleton continues past 18 to 19 months. The family disbands after about five months, the kittens going off to establish territories for themselves. Females are sexually mature from about 6 months.
Wildcats are under threat from habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation. Further threats to European wildcats are population isolation, collisions with automobiles, and diseases transmitted via domestic cats.
Interbreeding with domestic cats makes it very difficult to estimate the wildcat population size. In some areas, estimations have been made for specific populations: Scotland: 1,000 to 4,000 individuals, Germany: 1,700 to 5,000, Slovenia: 2,000 or less; Poland: 100 to 150, Slovakia: about 1,500, and Romania: 10,000.
Wildcats have an important role controlling populations of rodents as well as other small mammals. It is this activity that likely led them to domestication.
The ancient Egyptians were thought to have been the first people to domesticate the cat, just four thousand years ago. However, in 2004 French researchers in Cyprus discovered the ninety-five-hundred-year-old remains of a cat and a human buried together. More recently, an analysis of cat teeth and bones from a fifty-three-hundred-year-old Chinese settlement indicated that cats were eating grains, rodents, and leftovers from human meals.
It would seem that after the advent of agriculture, cats in Asia and the Near East began to gather near grain stores and farms, where there were many mice and rats. Humans tolerated the exterminators of these pests, and the cats became more and more comfortable around people. Whether this association came about five or ten millennia in the past, evidence suggests cats were not in the human domestic domain for as long a period as dogs, these animals having been human companions for maybe forty thousand years.