Wildcat: Description, Species, Size, Habitat and Facts

Wildcat

The name wildcat is given to a specie complex comprising two small wild cat species, the African wildcat (F. lybica) and the European wildcat (Felis silvestris).

The African wildcat inhabits steppes and semi-arid landscapes in Africa, Central Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, into western China, and western India. The wildcat species differ in size, tail, and fur pattern. The European wildcat has a long bushy tail with a rounded tip and long fur.

In comparison, the African wildcat, which is smaller than the European wildcat, possesses a short sandy-gray fur, and a tapering tail. Its tail is more faintly striped. A sub-species of the African wildcat is the Asiatic wildcat (F. lybica ornata), which possesses both spotted and striped fur.

Members of the cat family, including the wildcat, once had a common ancestor about 10 to 15 million years ago. Thereafter, due to evolution, the common ancestor got split into different species of wildcat or cat we see today based on fur colour, size, habitat, length of its legs, and many more. 

The evolution of the European wildcat occurred during the Cromerian Stage, about 478,000 to 866,000 years ago. The Felis lunensis was its direct ancestor of the European wildcat.

The silvestris and lybica lineages probably metamorphosed about 173,000 years ago.

Table of Contents

Scientific classification

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassMammalia
OrderCarnivora
SuborderFeliformia
FamilyFelidae
SubfamilyFelinae
GenusFelis
SpecieFelis silvestris, Felis lybica

Sub-specie classification

Specie  Sub-specie
Felis silvestrisF. silvestris caucasica(Caucasian wildcat)
Felis lybicaF. lybica cafra(Southern African wildcat), F. lybica ornata(Asiatic wildcat)

Caucasian wildcat (F. silvestris caucasica)

This sub-species possesses a light gray fur with well-developed patterns on its back and head. It also shows spots on the sides and faint transverse bands. The tail consists of three distinct black transverse rings.

Southern African wildcat (F. lybica cafra)

This sub-species isn’t significantly different in pattern and colour from the nominate one. Those from farther north in Africa have slightly shorter skulls compared to available zoological specimens.

Asiatic wildcat (F. lybica ornata)

This sub-species has dark spots on its light, ochrous-gray coloured fur coat.

Evolution

The wildcat is a member of the family Felidae that shared a common ancestor about 10 to 15 million years ago. Felis species metamorphosed from the Felidae around 6 to 7 million years ago. The European wildcat metamorphosed from Felis about 1.09 to 1.4 million years ago.

The European wildcat’s direct ancestor was Felis lunensis, which once lived in Europe during the late Pliocene and Villafranchian era. Paleontologists who study fossil remains indicate that the transformation from lunensis to silvestris was completed by the Holstein interglacial about 340,000 to 325,000 years ago.

The difference between the African and European wildcat in terms of their skull indicates that the wildcat probably migrated during the Late Pleistocene era from Europe into the Middle East.

The migration gave rise to the steppe wildcat phenotype. Further phylogenetic research discovered that the lybica lineage probably metamorphosed from the silvestris lineage about 173,000 years ago.

Appearance

A wildcat’s ears are pointed, which are broad at the base and moderate in length. Its whiskers are white and can reach up to 5 to 8 cm (2.0 to 3.1 in) in length on the muzzle.

Whiskers are present on the inner surface of the paw and measure 3 to 4 cm (1.2 to 1.6 in). It has large eyes, with yellowish-green irises and vertical pupils. The eyelashes can range from 5 to 6 cm (2.0 to 2.4 in) in length and can number six to eight per side.

The European wildcat possesses a greater skull volume when compared to a domestic cat. Furthermore, its skull is also more spherical in shape than that of the leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis) and jungle cat (F. chaus). Its dental set is relatively weaker and smaller than the jungle cat’s.

Both European and African wildcat species are larger when compared to a domestic cat. The European wildcat has a more robust build and relatively longer legs than the domestic cat. Its tail is long and usually exceeds one-half of the total animal’s body length.

The largest specimens are found in the cool, northern parts of Europe. They also roam remote parts of Asia that include Mongolia, Siberia, and Manchuria. Males may measure up to 17 – 36 inches (43 – 91 cm) from head to body, and 9.1 -15.7 inches (23 -40 cm) in tail length. Male wildcats can weigh up to 11 – 18 lb (5 – 8 kg).

Female wildcats are slightly smaller in size compared to males. They can measure up to 16 – 30 inches (40 -77 cm) from head to body and measuring up to 7.1 -13.8 inches (18 – 35 cm) in tail length. They can also weigh 6.6 – 11.0 lb (3 – 5 kg).

Both sexes have two abdominal teats and two thoracics. Both sexes have pre-anal glands, consisting of sebaceous glands around the anal opening and moderately sized scent glands.

Male wildcats activate their pre-anal pockets on the tail when they reach sexual maturity, which plays a significant role in territorial marking and reproduction.

Habitat

Wildcat

The European wildcat inhabits serene broadleaf and mixed forests in Turkey, the Caucasus, and Europe. The African wildcat can be found in a wide range of habitats, which includes the savannahs of Africa except for the rainforest.

They can also be found in areas ranging from Mauritania on the Atlantic coast eastwards to the Horn of Africa. Small populations live in the Nubian and Sahara deserts, Karoo region, Namib and Kalahari Deserts.

Hunting and Prey

Hearing and sight are the wildcat’s primary senses when it hunts. It lies down while stalking its prey, then catches it by making a few leaps, which can measure up to three meters. It leaps on the animal’s back and tries to bite the neck.

The European wildcat preys on smaller mammals such as rabbits, hares, dormice. They have also been known to hunt birds, especially ducks, pigeons, passerines, and Galliformes. The African wildcat also preys on murids, small reptiles, birds, and invertebrates.

Reproduction

For wildcats, oestrus periods can last for 5 to 9 days, ranging from December to February and another in May to July. They also have a gestation period lasting 60 to 68 days.

During the mating period, males fight ferociously and may gather around a single female. Kittens are usually born between April and May, and sometimes in August. Litter size ranges from 1 to 7 kittens.

Predators and Competitors

Wildcats have few natural predators at different locations. Some of the regions and its predator includes steppe regions of Europe and Asia(village dog, Eurasian lynx), Tajikistan(grey wolf).

Some of its airbourne predator includes Eurasian eagle-owl, and saker falcon. Wildcat also have competitors, which includes golden jackal, red fox, marten and other predators.

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