Genetic distinction of wildcat (Felis silvestris) populations in Europe, and hybridization with domestic cats in Hungary


Ettore Randi. Fax: + 39 051 796 628; E-mail:


The genetic integrity and evolutionary persistence of declining wildcat populations are threatened by crossbreeding with widespread free-living domestic cats. Here we use allelic variation at 12 microsatellite loci to describe genetic variation in 336 cats sampled from nine European countries. Cats were identified as European wildcats (Felis silvestris silvestris), Sardinian wildcats (F. s. libyca) and domestic cats (F. s. catus), according to phenotypic traits, geographical locations and independently of any genetic information. Genetic variability was significantly partitioned among taxonomic groups (FST = 0.11; RST = 0.41; P < 0.001) and sampling locations (FST = 0.07; RST = 0.06; P < 0.001), suggesting that wild and domestic cats are subdivided into distinct gene pools in Europe. Multivariate and Bayesian clustering of individual genotypes also showed evidence of distinct cat groups, congruent with current taxonomy, and suggesting geographical population structuring. Admixture analyses identified cryptic hybrids among wildcats in Portugal, Italy and Bulgaria, and evidenced instances of extensive hybridization between wild and domestic cats sampled in Hungary. Cats in Hungary include a composite assemblage of variable phenotypes and genotypes, which, as previously documented in Scotland, might originate from long lasting hybridization and introgression. A number of historical, demographic and ecological conditions can lead to extensive crossbreeding between wild and domestic cats, thus threatening the genetic integrity of wildcat populations in Europe.