Morphology and evolution

Morphology

Felis silvestris grampia look much like domestic cats, but they are larger and more robust-looking.

They have distinctive bushy ringed tails with blunt black tips and thick, heavily marked coats that are fairly dark in colour and striped. Juveniles have more distinctive markings than adults.

The adult winter coat is shed in favour of a shorter summer coat during the spring moult in April. The thicker winter coat grows during the autumn moult in September.

Other features include:

  • males are typically larger than females
  • the length from the head to the tip of the tail is about 90cm in males, 82cm in females
  • the dorsal stripe on lower back stops at root of tail
  • they have distinct, aligned tail bands
  • the tail tip is blunt and black
  • they have unbroken flank stripes

Evolution

The European form of the wildcat is the oldest wildcat species and is descended from Martelli’s cat (Felis [silvestris] lunensis) about 250,000 years ago (Kurtén 1968). The European wildcat colonised Britain after the end of the last ice age, over 9,000 years ago, when there was still a land bridge to the continent.

The cats followed the spread of suitable habitat and prey, and by the time Britain became an island they occurred over its length and breadth.

During their millennia of isolation, the British wildcats became a separate subspecies: Felis silvestris grampia.

Molecular analysis indicates that the African wildcat diverged from the European form only about 20,000 years ago (Randi and Ragni 1991).

The domestic cat derived from African wildcats 4,000–8,000 years ago (Clutton-Brock 1981, Davis 1987, Kitchener 1992).

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