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Sunday, December 10, 2023

Highland Tigers

When I hear the term 'Highland Tigers' the last thing I think about is the Scottish economy, which is just as well as it has nothing to do with prosperity (or the lack of it) north of the border. 

The Observer reports that scientists are preparing plans to restore the fortunes of Scotland’s threatened Highland wildcats – by identifying and removing DNA they have acquired from domestic cats.

The paper says that researchers have warned that the Highland tiger, as the wildcat is also known, is critically endangered because it has bred so much with domestic moggies. All animals now bear evidence of interbreeding, and many have little “wild” left in them. They say that by using modern genomics, scientists hope to reverse this process:

Precise DNA maps of individual animals would be created to pinpoint those with high levels of wildcat genes. These will be bred with similarly endowed felines to create a new population, unaffected by domestic cat hybridisation, that can then be returned to the Scottish countryside.

“The process is known as de-introgression and it is the scientific equivalent of trying to unscramble an egg,” said Dan Lawson of Bristol University, who is the genomics leader for the project.

“We have animals with a mix of two sets of genes. Now we want to separate those sets and recreate Scotland’s original wildcat population.

““It won’t be easy but the benefits will be considerable, not just for wildcats but for other endangered species that are being swamped, genetically, by similar animals.”

British moggies are derived from the African wildcat Felix lybica and tend to be smaller – and friendlier - than Felis silvestris, the European wildcat, from which the Scottish version is descended. Domestic cats moved into Europe as agriculture spread to the continent from the Middle East, and by Roman times they were established in Britain.

The two species kept apart with little interbreeding for centuries, research has indicated. Wildcats have an aversion to humans while domestic cats find us moderately tolerable and occasionally useful. But that separation was eroded as the effects of loss of habitat, road accidents and spreading domestic cat populations accumulated, leading to a slump in wildcat numbers in the 20th century.

“There were few places for the wildcat to hide, and survivors began to interbreed with domestic cats that had gone feral, producing hybrid offspring,” said Jo Howard-McCombe, a conservation geneticist at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland in Edinburgh.

“However, that interbreeding only happened in earnest in the 1960s, after we’d established captive populations of wildcats in Scotland. So animals that had been taken to zoos and sanctuaries were not too badly affected by hybridisation. Conservationists got there just in time.”

Using the descendants of these animals, a wildcat restoration programme, Saving Wildcats, was set up and this summer arranged for the release of 19 animals into a 600 sq km section of the Cairngorms national park known as Cairngorms Connect.

Fitted with GPS collars, each animal is tracked to study how it copes with life in the wild, and the onset of winter in Scotland. A further 40 animals are set to be released over the next three years.

“Wildcats survive on rabbits, mice, voles and occasional birds and hares. So far, our cats are doing well, though one has died from an abdominal infection,” said Helena Parsons, a manager for Saving Wildcats.

It will be interesting to see if this experiment works.

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