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Hybridisation between wild taxa and their domestic congeners is a significant conservation issue. Domestic species frequently outnumber their wild relatives in population size and distribution and may therefore genetically swamp the native species. The European wildcat (Felis silvestris) has been shown to hybridise with domestic cats (Felis catus). Previously suggested spatially divergent introgression levels have not been confirmed on a European scale due to significant differences in the applied methods to assess hybridisation of the European wildcat. We analysed 926 Felis spp. samples from 13 European countries, using a set of 86 selected ancestry-informative SNPs, 14 microsatellites, and ten mitochondrial and Y-chromosome markers to study regional hybridisation and introgression patterns and population differentiation. We detected 51 hybrids (four F1 and 47 F2 or backcrosses) and 521 pure wildcats throughout Europe. The abundance of hybrids varied considerably among studied populations. All samples from Scotland were identified as F2 hybrids or backcrosses, supporting previous findings that the genetic integrity of that wildcat population has been seriously compromised. In other European populations, low to moderate levels of hybridisation were found, with the lowest levels being in Central and Southeast Europe. The occurrence of distinct maternal and paternal markers between wildcat and domestic cat suggests that there were no severe hybridisation episodes in the past. The overall low (< 1%) prevalence of F1 hybrids suggests a low risk of hybridisation for the long-term genetic integrity of the wildcat in most of Europe. However, regionally elevated introgression rates confirm that hybridisation poses a potential threat. We propose regional in-depth monitoring of hybridisation rates to identify factors driving hybridisation so as to develop effective strategies for conservation.
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Conservation Genetics (2020) 21:247–260
Range‑wide patterns ofhuman‑mediated hybridisation inEuropean
AnnikaTiesmeyer1,2 · LuanaRamos3,4· JoséManuelLucas5· KatharinaSteyer1· PauloC.Alves3,4,6·
ChristosAstaras7· MareikeBrix8· MargheritaCragnolini9,10· CsabaDomokos11· ZsoltHegyeli11· RenéJanssen12·
AndrewC.Kitchener13,14· ClotildeLambinet15· XavierMestdagh16· DespinaMigli17· PedroMonterroso3·
JaapL.Mulder18· VincianeSchockert15· DionisiosYoulatos17· MarkusPfenninger19,20· CarstenNowak1,21
Received: 5 May 2019 / Accepted: 30 December 2019 / Published online: 25 January 2020
© The Author(s) 2020
Hybridisation between wild taxa and their domestic congeners is a significant conservation issue. Domestic species frequently
outnumber their wild relatives in population size and distribution and may therefore genetically swamp the native species.
The European wildcat (Felis silvestris) has been shown to hybridise with domestic cats (Felis catus). Previously suggested
spatially divergent introgression levels have not been confirmed on a European scale due to significant differences in the
applied methods to assess hybridisation of the European wildcat. We analysed 926 Felis spp. samples from 13 European
countries, using a set of 86 selected ancestry-informative SNPs, 14 microsatellites, and ten mitochondrial and Y-chromosome
markers to study regional hybridisation and introgression patterns and population differentiation. We detected 51 hybrids
(four F1 and 47 F2 or backcrosses) and 521 pure wildcats throughout Europe. The abundance of hybrids varied considerably
among studied populations. All samples from Scotland were identified as F2 hybrids or backcrosses, supporting previous
findings that the genetic integrity of that wildcat population has been seriously compromised. In other European popula-
tions, low to moderate levels of hybridisation were found, with the lowest levels being in Central and Southeast Europe. The
occurrence of distinct maternal and paternal markers between wildcat and domestic cat suggests that there were no severe
hybridisation episodes in the past. The overall low (< 1%) prevalence of F1 hybrids suggests a low risk of hybridisation for
the long-term genetic integrity of the wildcat in most of Europe. However, regionally elevated introgression rates confirm
that hybridisation poses a potential threat. We propose regional in-depth monitoring of hybridisation rates to identify factors
driving hybridisation so as to develop effective strategies for conservation.
Keywords Conservation genetics· Introgression· Single nucleotide polymorphism· Felis silvestris· Felis catus·
Anthropogenic hybridisation
Hybridisation is a naturally occurring process that leads to
contradictory evolutionary outcomes. On one hand, it may
decrease biodiversity by threatening species or populations
with the loss of genetic diversity or outright extinction by
genetic swamping (Rhymer and Simberloff 1996; Allendorf
etal. 2001; Seehausen etal. 2008; Todesco etal. 2016). On
the other hand, hybridisation can contribute to biodiversity
by introducing novel genetic diversity and triggering specia-
tion processes (Mallet 2008; Abbott etal. 2016). Globally,
a large proportion of species is assumed to be susceptible
to hybridisation with related taxa (Seehausen etal. 2008).
Hybridisation occurs when populations that have been repro-
ductively isolated for a certain time eventually come into
contact, for instance due to range shifts (Futuyma 2005).
Currently, rates of hybridisation may also be on the rise due
to human-mediated range expansion of alien taxa, leading
to previously impossible hybridisation events between natu-
rally allopatric taxa (Mooney and Cleland 2001; Sakai etal.
2001; Simberloff etal. 2013). Moreover, the introduction of
Electronic supplementary material The online version of this
article (https :// 2-019-01247 -4) contains
supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
* Annika Tiesmeyer
Extended author information available on the last page of the article
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248 Conservation Genetics (2020) 21:247–260
1 3
actively managed taxa for husbandry and sport hunting, as
in the case of livestock, pets and game, may also enhance
opportunities for hybridisation (Todesco etal. 2016). Non-
native and, in particular, domestic taxa have been introduced
on a global scale and often population sizes are substan-
tially larger compared to those of their wild congeners. In
addition to this, traits of domestic taxa have been artificially
selected to meet human needs; the introgression of “domes-
tic” genes in wild taxa may thus lead to decreased fitness or
to outbreeding depression in wild populations (Todesco etal.
2016). Therefore, studying the distribution and causes of
hybridisation between populations of wild and domestic taxa
is highly relevant for species conservation. Hybridisation
between wild and domestic congeners is well recognised,
for example, between wolf (Canis lupus) and domestic dog
(Canis familiaris) (Randi 2008), American bison (Bison
bison) and domestic cattle (Bos taurus) (Halbert and Derr
2007), wild and domestic American mink (Neovison vison)
(Kidd etal. 2009), Europeanpolecat (Mustela putorius) and
domestic ferret (Mustela furo) (Davison etal. 1999), wild
boar (Sus scrofa) and pig (Sus domesticus) (Scandura etal.
2008) and European wildcat (Felis silvestris) and domes-
tic cat (Felis catus) (e.g., Randi etal. 2001; Pierpaoli etal.
2003). Hybridisation in wildcats is a particularly complex
case study, since it involves natural and anthropogenic epi-
sodes. Natural hybridisation occurred between the African
wildcat (Felis lybica) and other taxa in the wildcat group
(Felis spp.) during their evolutionary history (Driscoll etal.
2007; Ottoni etal. 2017; Kitchener etal. 2017). Moreover, F.
silvestris and F. lybica were found to hybridise with domes-
tic cats (Driscoll etal. 2007; LeRoux etal. 2015). Domestic
cats originally derived from F. lybica in the Near East/North
Africa and today the human-mediated dispersal has resulted
in a near global distribution (Driscoll etal. 2007; Ottoni
etal. 2017).
Once widely distributed, the European wildcat underwent
sharp range declines, leading in some cases even to local
extinctions by the early twentieth century due to anthropo-
genic persecution and the loss of suitable habitat (Piechocki
1990; Stahl and Artois 1995; Yamaguchi etal. 2015). Today,
the conservation status of the European wildcat is still unfa-
vourable in most European countries (EC 2015), although
there is recent evidence of increasing populations and natu-
ral recolonisation of the species’ historic range in at least
some regions (Steyer etal. 2016; Nussberger etal. 2018).
Conservation threats include habitat loss and fragmentation,
road mortality, persecution and hybridisation (Klar etal.
2008, 2009; Lozano and Malo 2012; Yamaguchi etal. 2015).
However, there is substantial uncertainty about the relative
importance of these threats, and in particular, regarding the
role of hybridisation.
Previous genetic studies have confirmed the occur-
rence of hybridisation between wildcats and domestic
cats throughout Europe (Randi etal. 2001; Beaumont etal.
2001; Driscoll etal. 2007; Pierpaoli etal. 2003; Lecis
etal. 2006; Randi 2008; Oliveira etal. 2008a, b; O’Brien
etal. 2009; Hertwig etal. 2009; Eckert etal. 2009; Nuss-
berger etal. 2014b, 2018; Steyer etal. 2018). However,
the levels of hybridisation reported varied considerably
between studies, even those involving the same regions
(e.g., Eckert etal. 2009 or Steyer etal. 2018 vs. Hertwig
etal. 2009). This has been suggested to be due to consider-
able differences in the methods applied to identify hybrid
individuals and to measure hybridisation rates, e.g., sam-
pling strategies, size and period, number and type of mark-
ers, as well as the statistical approaches used for hybrid
identification (Steyer etal. 2018). Recently, polymorphic
molecular markers, mainly microsatellites, have been
applied for studying admixture and introgression between
wildcats and domestic cats (e.g., Randi etal. 2001;
Pierpaoli etal. 2003; Eckert etal. 2009). However, the
resolution of hybridisation is limited due to the relatively
low availability, repeatability between labs and technical
capacity to analyse microsatellite markers. High-through-
put analyses of single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP)
arrays substantially improved the in-depth assessment of
hybridisation (e.g., vonHoldt etal. 2013; Goedbloed etal.
2013; Nussberger etal. 2013). SNPs have been shown to
be highly accurate and sensitive in identifying hybrid indi-
viduals between wildcats and domestic cats, irrespective
of origin and available reference database (Oliveira etal.
2015; Steyer etal. 2018; Mattucci etal. 2019).
Here, we analysed wildcat and domestic cat samples
from 13 different countries across Europe using a set of
ancestry-informative SNP markers (96) to study intro-
gression between wildcats and domestic cats (Nussberger
etal. 2013, 2014a). SNP markers were selected to be
diagnostic for identifying wildcat, domestic cat, and their
hybrids, and included recombinant (autosomal) and non-
recombinant markers (mitochondrial and Y-chromosome
markers) (Nussberger etal. 2013, 2014a). Autosomal
SNPs were analysed using Bayesian statistical tools to
identify hybrids and backcrosses. As previous studies
have described an asymmetric and sex-specific hybridisa-
tion directionality (Nussberger etal. 2018; Oliveira etal.
2018), we analysed paternally inherited (Y-chromosome)
and maternally inherited (mitochondrial DNA) SNP mark-
ers and sequences. In addition, we genotyped individuals
using a set of highly polymorphic microsatellite markers
to study the genetic structure of wildcat population.
We present the first large-scale assessment of hybridisa-
tion between Felis spp., representing populations across
Europe. We aimed to provide a first estimation of overall
hybridisation rates in the European wildcat to serve as
an initial baseline for future comprehensive assessments.
Moreover, we addressed the degree of threat posed by
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249Conservation Genetics (2020) 21:247–260
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hybridisation to the long-term persistence of wildcats in
different regions.
Material andmethods
Study area anddesign
Wildcat and domestic cat samples were collected from
13 countries in Europe between 1999 and 2016. In total,
926 samples were analysed from Southwest and Southern
Europe (Portugal n = 69, Spain n = 94, Italy n = 30), Scotland
(n = 17), Central Europe (Belgium n = 107, the Netherlands
n = 10, Luxembourg n = 48, Ger many n = 412, France n = 1,
Austria n = 21) and Southeast Europe (Romania n = 59, Bul-
garia n = 38, Greece n = 20) (Fig.1). Samples from Scotland
were originally provided as examples of clear morphological
hybrids based on pelage, thus reflecting the hybrid swarm
that occurs there today (Senn etal. 2018). Therefore, the
Scottish samples may be biased more towards hybrids that
are closer to domestic cats than wildcats. Samples from
Germany were randomly preselected from a larger dataset
(Steyer etal. 2018) to avoid local overrepresentation (≤ 4
samples per 10 km2). Sampling was performed opportunisti-
cally by collecting samples of carcasses (n = 621), captured
cats (n = 65) and domestic cats from pet owners (n = 30),
by collecting fresh scat samples (n = 24) and other findings
(n = 6), or systematically using hair traps scented with vale-
rian tincture (n = 180) as described by Steyer etal. (2013)
(Supplementary TableS1). Sampling material consisted of
invasive samples (tissue n = 608, blood n = 88, tooth n = 1)
and non-invasive (or minimally invasive) samples (hair
n = 202, scat n = 24, saliva n = 3). No animal was harmed
or sacrificed for the purposes of this study and all samples
were collected in compliance with the respective local and
national laws. Genetic samples of captured cats or pets were
obtained as byproducts of routine analyses of veterinarians
or telemetry studies (Klar etal. 2009; Lammertsma etal.
2011; Streif etal. 2012; Ramos 2014).
Laboratory procedures
Extraction of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) was performed
in separate laboratory rooms for invasive and non-invasive
samples. Blood and tissue samples were extracted using
the Q
Blood and Tissue Kit and the tooth sample was
extracted using the Q
Investigator Kit following the
manufacturer’s instructions. Saliva samples were extracted
using the Q
QIAamp DNA Blood Mini Kit (Hilden,
Germany) following the manufacturer’s instructions and hair
samples were extracted using the Q
Investigator Kit as
described by Steyer etal. (2016). Scat samples were dried
at 60°C for 2days, followed by subsequent DNA extraction
as described by Frantz etal. (2003) and filtering with pre-
rinsed Microcon® YM-30 centrifugal filter units (Millipore,
Billerica, MA). Negative controls were included in all proto-
cols for detecting potential DNA contamination.
Fig. 1 Sampling locations and
wildcat occurrence in Europe.
All genotyped samples (n = 926)
are displayed. The colour codes
represent populations that were
grouped based on microsatel-
lite-based Bayesian clustering.
The distribution of the Euro-
pean wildcat (Felis silvestris)
and Sardinian wildcat (Felis
lybica) in the EU is shown as
light grey grid cells (EC 2015)
0250 500125 Kilometers
1. Iberian Peninsula
2. Scotland
3. Western Central Europe
4. Central Germany
5. Eastern Alpine
6. Central Italy
7. Southeast Europe
Wildcat distribution
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250 Conservation Genetics (2020) 21:247–260
1 3
All samples (926) were analysed with a set of 96 SNPs
using SNPtype genotyping assays run on F
Dynamic Arrays (F
, San Francisco, USA), follow-
ing Nussberger etal. (2014a), to detect admixture between
wildcats and domestic cats. The SNP set includes 86 auto-
somal markers (75 diagnostic markers and 11 markers for
individualisation), eight mitochondrial markers and two
Y-chromosome markers. All samples were pre-amplified
using specific target amplification reactions. The tooth sam-
ple and blood and tissue samples were pre-amplified using
the manufacturer’s instructions. Pre-amplification of saliva,
scat and hair samples was performed according to Nuss-
berger etal. (2014a). No-template controls were included to
detect potential contamination on every chip. Raw data were
analysed using F
SNP Genotyping Analysis Software
v.3.1.2. The analysis of a subset of 154 samples (17%) was
replicated to assess genotyping errors.
A 110 base pair (bp) Felis-specific fragment of the mito-
chondrial (mt) control region was amplified and sequenced
using the primers LF4 (Eckert etal. 2009) and H16498
(Kocher etal. 1989) as described by Steyer etal. (2013).
Sequences were processed and aligned in G
6 (https
://www.genei, Kearse etal. 2012) using previously
published haplotypes (Steyer etal. 2013, 2016) down-
loaded from GenBank (Accession Numbers: KR076400-
KR076428, JX045658-JX045661, KX161418-KX161423).
In total, 905 samples were genotyped with microsatel-
lites to detect population structure. A set of 14 polymorphic
microsatellites (Menotti-Raymond etal. 1999) was analysed
following the protocol of Steyer etal. (2013). A multiple
tube approach with a minimum of three polymerase chain
reaction (PCR) replications per sample was applied to meas-
ure genotyping errors of potentially low-quality samples
(Navidi etal. 1992). Fragment length was analysed using
2.2 (SoftGenetics).
Data processing andanalyses
The SNP data were filtered for quality in a two-step pro-
cedure. Firstly, SNP loci and samples showing more than
90% of missing data were excluded to eliminate markers and
samples that generally failed to amplify. Secondly, samples
and loci showing more than 30% of missing data were finally
removed because an increased rate of failed amplifications
(“No call”) has been shown to be related to increased geno-
typing errors (vonThaden etal. 2017). Genotyping errors
were calculated using a customised R-script in the software
R 3.2.2. (R Development Core Team 2008) based on the
methodology in the software G
(Valiere 2002). Ampli-
fication success was calculated for all samples and genotyp-
ing errors for replicated samples.
For all replicated SNP and microsatellite genotypes a
consensus genotype was built using a customised R-script in
the software R (R Development Core Team 2008). An allele
was counted if it appeared in at least one out of three repli-
cates, assuming that allelic drop-out occurs more often than
false alleles (Kraus etal. 2015; Steyer etal. 2016). Microsat-
ellite genotypes with < 70% amplification success and > 30%
allelic drop-out rate were excluded from analysis. Micros-
atellite genotypes were checked for multiple recorded indi-
viduals by using a customised R-script to measure genotype
similarities. If available, other criteria, such as mt-haplotype,
sex and sampling location or date, were considered. Only
one genotype per individual was kept for further analysis.
The software N
1.1 (Anderson and Thompson
2002) was used to assess the hybrid status of SNP-typed
individuals by analysing genotypes of autosomal SNP mark-
ers. The software was configured to estimate posterior prob-
abilities for six different classes: two pure parental groups,
F1-hybrids, F2-hybrids and first-generation backcrosses to
each parental group. N
uses a Bayesian frame-
work. We excluded pre-convergence values by discarding
(“burn-in”) 100K iterations, and using the 500K itera-
tions of each Markov chain (MCMC). Uninformative (i.e.
uniform) priors were used as recommended by Steyer etal.
(2018). Individuals were considered assigned to one of the
six different classes if the assignment value (q(i)) was ≥ 0.85
as described by Steyer etal. (2018).
Two uniparental diagnostic SNPs on the Y-chromosome
and eight in the mitochondrial DNA were analysed for
paternal and maternal ancestry, respectively. The addition-
ally analysed mitochondrial sequences were aligned and
analysed using the software N
etwork to calculate a
median joining network (Forster 2015). Mitochondrial SNPs
and sequences were aligned further to previously published
mitochondrial clades, which covered partly the same seg-
ments (ND5, ND6) (Driscoll etal. 2007; Ottoni etal. 2017).
We analysed differentiation among all clusters by DAPC
(Discriminant Analysis of Principal Components) in the
Adegenet package (Jombart 2008) in R (R Development
Core Team 2008) based on all SNP genotypes. We also ana-
lysed microsatellite genotypes using the software S
(Falush etal. 2003) to assess population structure among
wildcats only. The Western Central Europe and Central Ger-
man population were reduced randomly to 35 individuals
each to equalize sample sizes between populations. After
a “burn-in” of 100K iterations, inference was based on the
values of the remaining 200K iterations using an admix-
ture model with correlated allele frequencies and no a priori
information. Analyses were run for a number of clusters
(k) from 1 to 15 in ten independent runs each. The likely
number of clusters was determined based on the Evanno
method (Evanno etal. 2005) as implemented in the applica-
tion S
(Earl and vonHoldt 2012). Inde-
pendent runs were joined by using the application C
(Jakobsson and Rosenberg 2007).
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251Conservation Genetics (2020) 21:247–260
1 3
Genotyping success andgenotyping errors
In total, 926 samples were genotyped with a 96 SNP array.
Of those, 32 samples (3%) failed to amplify and 112 samples
(12%) had more than 30% of missing data. These samples
were excluded from further analysis. Data from 63 autoso-
mal, four mitochondrial and two SRY markers (72%) ful-
filled the quality criteria set out above and were thus kept
for further analyses. Genotyping errors among the replicated
samples (n = 162) showed a rate of 0.7%, representing allelic
drop-out and false alleles. Genotyping of 905 samples with
microsatellites resulted in a mean amplification success of
85% per sample. The mean allelic drop-out rate for micros-
atellites genotypes was 6%. We excluded 159 microsatellite
genotypes (18%) from further analysis. Repeated detections
of the same microsatellite genotype, or if not available of
identical SNP genotypes, were assumed to be the same indi-
vidual and were removed from further analyses (n = 15). In
the end, 767 individual genotypes were used for downstream
Hybridisation analysis
Hybridisation analysis with N
was run for 767
individuals and 54 autosomal SNP markers, excluding
all non-diagnostic markers. In total, 521 individuals were
assigned to pure wildcat, 187 to pure domestic cat, four to
F1 hybrid, ten to F2 hybrid, 28 to backcross to wildcat, and
nine to backcross to domestic cat (Table1). In eight cases,
individuals were not clearly assigned to any of the analysed
categories. Hybrids of the first generation (n = 4, F1 hybrids)
were significantly less frequent than hybrids of the second
generation (n = 47, F2 hybrids and backcrosses). Hybrids
were detected in all studied populations with different abun-
dances (Fig.2). Most hybrids were detected among samples
from Scotland. None of the 17 analysed Scottish samples
was assigned to wildcat. In other populations the propor-
tion of hybrids among pure wildcats varied between 3 and
21% (Table2). Besides the Scottish samples, there was no
apparent pattern in the geographical distribution of hybrids
(Fig.3). The lowest proportion of hybrids (between 3 and
5%) was found in Western Central Europe, Central Germany
and Southeast Europe, especially in the Transylvanian Basin
and the Carpathians (Fig.2, Table1).
Variability atuniparental markers (mtDNA
A total of 35 different mitochondrial haplotypes was found
among 761 analysed sequences (Fig.4; GenBank Accession
Numbers: KR076400-KR076428, JX045658-JX045661,
KX161418-KX161423, MN518925–MN518932). Three
main haplogroups were distinguished: a wildcat group (FS-
A), a domestic cat group (FS-B) and a group shared between
both (FS-C). The highest frequency of the haplogroup FS-C
was found in Southeast and Central Europe (Supplementary
Fig. S1). Within the groups, private haplotypes were found
for wildcats and domestic cats with very few cytonuclear
discordances (n = 18) (Fig.4). Of identified hybrids, 88%
showed wildcat haplotypes (Fig.2). Among the Scottish
samples 15 out of 17 individuals (88%) carried the same
wildcat haplotype (Supplementary Fig. S2).
Table 1 Assignments of analysed individuals to wildcat, domestic cat or hybrid categories among populations
The results are based on the SNP genotype analysed with the software N
(a) number of analysed individual SNP genotypes, (b) num-
ber of genotypes assigned to wildcat, (c) domestic cat, (d) F1-hybrid, (e) F2-hybrid, (f) backcross to wildcat, (g) backcross to domestic cat, (h)
individuals that were assigned with a q(i) < 0.85, (i) sum of the reported hybrid individuals under columns (d) to (g), (j) references if presenting
data from sources other than the present study
a Only recent samples were considered
Population (a) N
(b) Wildcats (c)
tic cats
(d) F1 (e) F2 (f) BxWC (g) BxDC (h) n.a (i) ∑ hybrids (j) References (other
than present data)
Iberian Peninsula 93 42 40 4 5 2 11
Scotland 17 – 5 4 6 2 15
Western Europe 322 223 86 1 9 1 2 11
Central Germany 199 155 38 1 4 1 5
Eastern Alpine 36 20 13 1 2 3
Central Italy 8 5 2 1 2
Southeast Europe 92 76 10 1 1 2 2 4
Total 767 521 187 4 10 28 9 8 51
Jura (FRA/CH) 224 114 91 2 1 14 2 19 Nussberger etal. (2018)a
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252 Conservation Genetics (2020) 21:247–260
1 3
1 Iberian Peninsula
2 Scotland
3 Western Central Europe
4 Central Germany
5 Eastern Alpine
6 Central Italy
7 Southeast Europe
DC Domestic cats
Fig. 2 Individual assignments with biparental and uniparental SNPs.
All successfully analysed individuals (n = 767) are shown as verti-
cal columns. a Mitochondrial haplotypes were based on a 110 bp
sequence of the control region. Classification of haplotypes was
according to previous comprehensive studies (Steyer et al. 2016,
2018). b SRY-haplotypes were based on two SRY-SNPs. Classifica-
tion of the haplotypes followed Nussberger etal. (2014b). c Assign-
ments based on autosomal diagnostic SNPs (n = 54) analysed with
the software N
. Each column represents the individual q(i)
value belonging to the respective parental or hybrid cluster. Wildcats
(WC) are shown in blue, domestic cats (DC) in red, F1-hybrids (F1)
in black, F2-hybrids (F2) in orange, backcrosses to wildcats (BxWC)
in light blue and backcrosses to domestic cats (BxDC) in pink and
failed amplifications (n/a) in grey. In case of the SRY-SNPs (c) failed
amplifications also represent female individuals
Table 2 Review of hybridisation rates for wildcat populations in Europe
Hybridsation rates were calculated based on (a) SNP data from present study if no other reference is given and (b) microsatellite data reviewed
from previous studies covering similar study areas. Hybridisation rates were calculated as the number of hybrids (first- and second-generation
hybrids) per total number of individuals. Pure domestic cats were excluded from calculations as they were not considered belonging to the wild-
cat population
a Value is not considered significant due to the small number of samples
Population (a) SNPs (b) Microsatellites
Iberian Peninsula 0.21 (11/53) 0.15 (2/13; Pierpaoli etal. 2003);
0.07 (5/72; Oliveira etal. 2008b);
Portugal: 0.12 (4/34; Oliveira etal. 2008a)
Scotland 1 (15/15) 0.5 (96/191; Beaumont etal. 2001)
Western Europe 0.05 (11/234) Belgium: 0.05 (1/19), Western Germany: 0 (0/24) (Pierpaoli etal. 2003);
Western Germany: 0.43 (12/28) (Hertwig etal. 2009); Western Germany: 0 (0/28) (Eck-
ert etal. 2009); Germany: 0.05 (86/1695) (Steyer etal. 2016)
Central Germany 0.03 (5/160) 0 (0/27) (Pierpaoli etal. 2003);
0.04 (2/46) (Hertwig etal. 2009);
0 (0/38) (Eckert etal. 2009);
Germany: 0.05 (86/1695) (Steyer etal. 2016)
Eastern Alpine 0.13 (3/23) Northern Italy: 0 (0/4) (Randi etal. 2001); Eastern Alpine: 0 (0/4) (Pierpaoli etal. 2003)
Central Italy 2/7a0.03 (1/39) (Randi etal. 2001)
Southeast Europe 0.05 (4/80) 0.17 (1/6) (Pierpaoli etal. 2003);
0.12 (2/17) (Eckert etal. 2009)
Eastern France/ Switzerland 0.16 (21/133) (Nuss-
berger etal. 2018)
0.33 (2/6) (Pierpaoli etal. 2003);
0.24 (31/130) (O’Brien etal. 2009);
Total 0.10 (72/705)
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253Conservation Genetics (2020) 21:247–260
1 3
Based on the mitochondrial SNPs, clades I and IV were
identified corresponding to the classification of Ottoni etal.
(2017) (Supplementary Fig. S3). Clade I was exclusively
found in wildcats and clade IV appeared in wildcats and
domestic cats.
The two SRY-SNPs showed only two different combina-
tions (Y/Y or X/X) classified as domestic cat or wildcat type
according to Nussberger etal. (2013). Among all analysed
samples Y-chromosomes of wildcat type were found in 417
males and of domestic cat type in 133 males. Within these
there was a high concordance with assignments based on
autosomal SNP markers (Fig.2). In case of the SRY SNPs
15 individuals (3%) showed discordant results; four domes-
tic cats carried a Y-chromosome of wildcat ancestry, whilst
11 wildcats carried one of domestic cat ancestry. Seventeen
detected male hybrids carried a Y-chromosome of wildcat
ancestry and 15 of domestic cat ancestry. Among the Scot-
tish samples 9 out of 11 males (81%) carried a domestic cat
Y-chromosome (Fig.2).
Population genetic structure
Results of a clustering analysis in DAPC, using all SNP gen-
otypes, were concordant with those in N
. Wild-
cats and domestic cats plotted into two distinct groups and
hybrids appeared admixed (Supplementary Fig. S4). SNP
markers were highly discriminating between wildcats and
domestic cats but indicated low informative value (eigen-
value) concerning more fine-scale population structures.
The polymorphic set of 14 microsatellite markers revealed
distinct population structures among wildcat populations
Fig. 3 Distribution of wild-
cats and hybrids in Europe.
Assigned categories are based
on SNP genotypes (n = 572)
analysed with software N
. Pure wildcats (WC) are
shown as blue dots, F1-hybrids
(F1) as orange triangles,
F2-hybrids (F2) as yellow
stars, backcrosses to wildcats
(BxWC) as light blue squares
and backcrosses to domestic
cats (BxDC) as pink squares.
Pure domestic cats (n = 187)
and samples that could not be
assigned to any of the categories
(n = 8) are not displayed. The
known distribution of wildcats
is shown as light grey grid cells
(EC 2015)
backcross/ WC
backcross/ DC
54 31
Fig. 4 Network of mitochondrial haplotypes with corresponding
hybrid category. The network was calculated with a 110 bp frag-
ment of the control region. Black dots between haplotypes display the
number of mutation steps (added by 1). Each number per haplotype
is concordant with the name provided in GenBank (SGN-HP-FS03
to -FS60), except for haplotypes which have been detected for the
first time (SGN-FS63 to -74). The pie charts per haplotype indicate
the assigned hybrid category based on autosomal SNP genotypes
(n = 759) analysed with the software N
. The size of the pie
charts corresponds to the number of detections
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254 Conservation Genetics (2020) 21:247–260
1 3
in S
. The most likely number of genetic clusters
was k = 2, revealing a clear distinction of wildcats in Cen-
tral Germany from other populations (Supplementary Fig.
S5). High likelihood was also achieved for k = 3, k = 4 and
k = 5. In total, five genetic clusters were differentiated and
grouped into populations throughout the study area: Central
Germany, Iberian Peninsula, Western Central Europe (West-
ern Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, France),
Eastern Alpine (Austria, Northern Italy) and Southeast
Europe (Romania, Bulgaria, Greece) (Fig.1). Individuals
from Romania, Bulgaria and Greece did not reveal popula-
tion substructure. The individuals from central Italy (n = 8)
appeared admixed between clusters and were grouped as a
separate population consistent with previous studies (Mat-
tucci etal. 2013). Individuals from Scotland were also
grouped separately because of the lack of samples assigned
as wildcats. In total, samples were grouped into seven popu-
lations throughout the study area (Fig.1).
The aim of this study was to assess hybridisation levels
between the European wildcat and the domestic cat through-
out Europe and to compare findings between different areas
of its distribution. The 51 hybrids were found among 521
wildcat individuals throughout the wildcat’s distribution in
Europe (Fig.3). Levels of hybridisation varied considerably
in frequency and distribution in the populations considered
(Table1). They were low to moderate in Central, South-
east and Southwest Europe. In contrast, all samples from
Scotland were identified as backcross hybrids, supporting
findings of previous studies that the genetic integrity of the
wildcat population in Scotland is seriously compromised
(Kitchener etal. 2005; Kitchener and Daniels 2008; Kilshaw
etal. 2016; Senn etal. 2018). However, since the Scottish
samples were explicitly morphological hybrids, this may
have biased the result. On the other hand, the lack of cats
with typical wildcat appearance probably reflects the hybrid
swarm status of this population.
In most populations, maternal and paternal haplotypes
were both coincident with the autosomal DNA result, which
suggests that there have been no intense hybridisation epi-
sodes in the past. Hence, our SNP analyses confirm previous
findings based on microsatellites that the genetic integrity
of the European wildcat has persisted in most regions to
date (e.g., Randi etal. 2001; Pierpaoli etal. 2003; Mattucci
etal. 2016). Most Scottish samples carried a mitochondrial
haplotype of wildcat type and Y-chromosomes of domes-
tic cat type, which may reflect a sex-biased directionality
of gene flow. However, this may also result from the lim-
ited sample size or reflect a potential bias in these Scottish
samples towards the advanced level of introgression within
this population (Senn etal. 2018).
Irrespective of these findings, it remains unclear to which
degree both forms are affected by historic gene flow because
available current hybridisation assessments are restricted
to measuring contemporary differentiation between wild-
cats and domestic cats. Palaeogenetic or genomic studies
investigating proportions of admixture in wildcats need to
be developed. Mattucci etal. (2019) recently developed an
approach to detect genomic traces originating from hybridi-
sation events that occurred from 6 to 22 generations in the
While we found hybrids throughout all studied wildcat
populations, we also assessed low to moderate levels of
hybridisation in most regions. Hybridisation levels, assessed
with SNP data, were generally similar to previously reported
results based on microsatellite data (summarised in Table2)
The lowest proportion of hybrids (3–5%) was detected in
Central Europe, which is supported by previous studies
(Pierpaoli etal. 2003; Hertwig etal. 2009; Eckert etal.
2009; Steyer etal. 2018), excepting for a high hybridisa-
tion rate of 43% for western Germany, described by Hertwig
etal. (2009). This finding was not supported here and in pre-
vious studies covering the same study areas (Pierpaoli etal.
2003; Eckert etal. 2009; Steyer etal. 2016). Steyer etal.
(2018) suggested that the discrepancy derives from meth-
odological differences related to the problem of reference
population assignment when relying on microsatellite data.
In Southeast Europe, we found similarly low hybridisation
levels (5%), which are the first genetically confirmed results
covering several regions in this area (Table2). Findings of
moderate hybridisation rates in the Iberian Peninsula were in
line with previous findings that were based on microsatellite
analyses (Table2; Pierpaoli etal. 2003; Oliveira etal. 2008a,
b). In the Eastern Alpine region, we detected one F1 and two
backcross hybrids among 23 individuals, which are, to our
knowledge, the first genetically confirmed hybrids in this
area. In Scotland, we found exclusively hybrids of differ-
ent classes, indicating that hybridisation has been occurring
for several generations and crossbreeding between different
hybrid classes (Kitchener etal. 2005; Kilshaw etal. 2016;
Mattucci etal. 2016; Senn etal. 2018).
Most previous studies addressing recent hybridisation
between wildcats and domestic cats were based on regional
sampling and/or relied on limited sets of microsatellite
markers (usually 14 or less). Broad-scale comparisons of
hybridisation rates had low informative value due to meth-
odological constraints, namely to the use of different mark-
ers, statistical approaches and thresholds. The application
of SNPs provides several advantages, namely that they are
abundant and broadly distributed in genomes and compatible
with high-throughput approaches (reviewed by Garvin etal.
2010). The applied SNP-set has been previously shown to
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255Conservation Genetics (2020) 21:247–260
1 3
be statistically powerful in differentiating wildcats, domes-
tic cats and F1, F2 and first-generation backcrosses (cor-
rect assignments of 99.6% (Nussberger etal. 2013); correct
assignments of F1 hybrids 100%, second generation hybrids
96–98% (Steyer etal. 2018)). The microsatellite set ana-
lysed in this study has been previously shown to fail in dif-
ferentiating among hybrid classes (Steyer etal. 2018) and
was thus not considered in the assessment of hybridisation.
However, obstacles in comparing hybridisation rates are
not completely overcome, includingdiverse use of refer-
ence populations, differences in sampling techniques and
intensity throughout the species distribution (Steyer etal.
2018). Future research needs to address a harmonisation of
sampling approaches for European wildcats for conducting
more comprehensive assessments.
While admixture between European wildcats and domes-
tic cats was widespread throughout the species’ range, we
found low or moderate levels of recent hybridisation in
most regions. If only F1 hybrids are considered, the overall
proportion of hybrids among studied samples was less than
1%, since most hybrids were F2 and backcrosses. However,
the very low frequency of observed F1s should be taken
with caution, since this can reflect a sample bias (animals
too similar to domestic cats may be not sampled). Overall,
our findings generally suggest that the genetic integrity of
European wildcats persists in the longterm despite hybridi-
sation events. Conversely, we confirmed regionally elevated
introgression rates, as in Scotland: all analysed samples were
identified as backcrossed hybrids. In this population, a high
proportion of F2 hybrids (29%) was also detected, although
this is likely to be due to a sampling bias, since F2 hybrids
(F1 × F1) are expected to occur in rare incidences only. The
use of strict hybrid categories might have caused the misas-
signments of individuals that are descended from repeated
crossbreeding between different hybrid generations (see also
Senn etal. 2018). These findings confirm that hybridisation
has been continuing for several generations.
Increased hybridisation rates, leading to considerable
introgression, have significant consequences for the con-
servation of wildcat populations (Yamaguchi etal. 2015).
Considering the emblematic case of the Scottish European
wildcat population, it is important to understand the fac-
tors that affect the frequency of hybridisation. Domestic
cats have a worldwide distribution and the number of pet
cats exceeds 65 million in European countries with wildcat
presence (EPFI 2017). The total number of domestic cats is
estimated to be higher by several orders of magnitude than
that of European wildcats. Differences in population sizes
between hybridising taxa, as seen for wildcat and domestic
cat in Europe, may increase the likelihood of extinction of
the smaller population (Rhymer and Simberloff 1996). The
actual number of free-ranging domestic cats is unknown
because some pet cats are kept indoors and solid estimates
of feral domestic cats are lacking. The degree of dependence
of domestic cats on humans is expected to be highly variable
and it is generally difficult to assess data on feral cats.
Considering the hybridisation levels for mainland Europe
and the level of anthropogenic disturbance in the area, we
think that ecological and/or ethological factors, limiting pan-
mixia between both forms, must exist in most populations.
Previous studies have reported that hybrids occurred more
frequently at the periphery of the ranges of wildcats (Randi
etal. 2001), wolves (Randi 2008) or golden jackals (Canis
aureus; Galov etal. 2015). The peripheral parts of popula-
tions are expected to have lower population densities than
core areas, which may affect ethological factors affecting
mate choice, also known as the Allee effect (Allee 1931).
Previous studies have shown that recent range expansions
of wildcat populations have led to increased hybridisation
rates in Switzerland and France (Nussberger etal. 2014b,
2018). As male cats generally disperse farther than females
(Sunquist and Sunquist 2002), an asymmetric distribution of
maternal or paternal markers can reflect population-dynamic
processes. In addition, male wildcats have been shown to tol-
erate low quality habitat better compared to females, which
may also affect directionality of hybridisation (Oliveira etal.
2018). In the Jura region of eastern Switzerland and west-
ern France, an increased rate of introgression of domestic
cat mitochondrial haplotypes into wildcats was found and
explained by a sex-biased dispersal of male wildcats enter-
ing domestic cat ranges (Nussberger etal. 2014b, 2018).
Among the Scottish samples, we found an opposite pattern
of hybrids, which mostly carry a domestic-cat-type Y-chro-
mosome but a wildcat-type mitochondrial haplotype, which
may suggest an opposite sex-biased directionality of gene
flow. This may be explained by prevalent gene flow between
hybrids and male domestic cats and female wildcats, but this
finding needs to be confirmed on a larger sampling set. Inter-
estingly, hybrids have been observed to occupy the same
habitat as wildcats and partly the same as domestic cats
(Germain etal. 2008; Kilshaw etal. 2016). Hence, hybrids
may play a role as vectors for gene flow between both popu-
lations, accelerating admixture between both species.
Encounters between wildcats and domestic cats are
expected to be a result of individual movements, which are
affected by habitat and population status (Gil-Sánchez etal.
2015). Movement data on both wildcats and domestic cats
have shown low spatio-temporal overlap on a local scale
(Germain etal. 2008). In Central Europe, wildcats have
been observed to prefer habitats with a proximity to forests
and a critical distance of several hundred meters from vil-
lages, single houses and roads to avoid human disturbance
(Klar etal. 2008). In contrast, domestic cats prefer habitats
in proximity to human settlements, because of access to pro-
vided resources (Biró etal. 2004; Ferreira etal. 2011), while
feral domestic cats may be less dependent on supplied food
Content courtesy of Springer Nature, terms of use apply. Rights reserved.
256 Conservation Genetics (2020) 21:247–260
1 3
resources. Consequently, encounters between wildcats and
domestic cats may occur frequently at the edges or outside
preferred wildcat habitat. In addition, encounters may take
place through exploratory movements outside their home
ranges, particularly during the mating season (Germain etal.
2008). Domestic cats, for instance, have been detected within
protected areas at a considerable distance from human set-
tlements (e.g., Sarmento etal. 2009; Zwijacz-Kozica etal.
2017). Wildcats and domestic cats have also been shown
to occur at the same locations, at least occasionally (Nuss-
berger etal. 2014b; Kilshaw etal. 2016; Steyer etal. 2016;
Beutel etal. 2017). We assume that habitat fragmentation
may enhance the chance of encounters between wildcats
and domestic cats because of the higher proportion of land
being subject to an edge effect. The high hybridisation rate
in Hungary has been explained by the occurrence of wildcats
in highly fragmented areas of forest patches, agriculture and
human settlements (Pierpaoli etal. 2003; Lecis etal. 2006;
Randi 2008). In Central Europe, we found a low hybridisa-
tion rate (Table2) despite a relatively high level of land-
scape fragmentation. This result may be explained by the
persistence of considerable amounts of broad-leaf and mixed
forest habitats, particularly in the moderately populated low
mountain regions (Steyer etal. 2018).
Hybridisation between the European wildcat and the early
forms of domestic cat may have been occurring in Europe
since the spread of Neolithic farming (Ottoni etal. 2017).
There is evidence for prehistoric gene flow between mem-
bers of the Felis silvestris/lybica species complex, suggest-
ing a complicated phylogenetic relationship (Driscoll etal.
2007; Ottoni etal. 2017). In our study, we analysed non-
recombinant paternal markers to assess current distribution
and frequency of uniparental lineages in European wildcats
and domestic cats. Interestingly, the assignment of mito-
chondrial haplotypes revealed that wildcats and domestic
cats do not appear as completely distinct maternal clades.
Besides a wildcat clade (FS-A) and a domestic cat clade (FS-
B), there is a shared one between both taxa (FS-C; Fig.4).
Similar findings have been described in previous studies
(Driscoll etal. 2007; Eckert etal. 2009; Steyer etal. 2016,
In our study, the individual haplotypes within the clade
FS-C appeared exclusively for domestic cats or wildcats.
Hence, a derivation from recently occurring hybridisation
is highly unlikely. The two wildcat haplotypes within the
clade FS-C (FS22 and FS23) occurred commonly in sev-
eral studied wildcat populations showing highest frequen-
cies in Southeast Europe and Central Germany. Baca etal.
(2018) suggested that ancient hybridisation may have led to
introgression from early arriving domestic cats to wildcats.
Ottoni etal. (2017) found evidence for ancient gene flow
taking place between F. silvestris and F. lybica, the ancestor
of domestic cats. They suggest that the range of F. lybica
extended temporarily beyond the formerly existing Bospho-
rus land bridge between Europe and Asia due to climatic
fluctuations during Late Pleistocene (Ottoni etal. 2017).
During the last glacial period populations of the European
wildcat drastically declined and persisted in several small
refugia in southern Europe (Sommer and Benecke 2006).
When domestic cats firstly arrived in Southeast Europe from
around 6000years ago (Ottoni etal. 2017), the postglacial
range expansion of the European wildcat already included
large parts of Central Europe (Sommer and Benecke 2006).
The clear prevalence of haplotypes FS22 and FS23 in wild-
cat populations in Southeast and Central Europe today may
support an introgression event that occurred before the
postglacial expansion of the European wildcat. However,
a derivation from incomplete lineage sorting, as suggested
by Eckert etal. (2009), may lead to similar patterns and
thus serves as another explanation. Considering the com-
plex phylogenetic relations between members of the Felis
silvestris/lybica species complex, it is highly recommended
to include recombinant nuclear markers when identifying
species or hybrids and, if available, also to use diagnostic
morphological characters.
Conclusions andimplications
Using a panel of discriminative SNP markers, we confirmed
that hybridisation between wildcats and their domestic con-
geners is a widespread phenomenon throughout the species’
range. However, the overall level of hybridization is moder-
ate, suggesting that long-term coexistence with the domes-
tic cat may allow the persistence of the genetic integrity
of wildcat populations, even in anthropogenically disturbed
landscapes with high abundances of domestic cats. Never-
theless, frequent hybridisation with the domestic cat may
regionally threaten the genetic integrity of the European
wildcat, as documented by the example of the wildcat in
Scotland and potentially leading even to the genetic extinc-
tion of local populations.
Our findings highlight the need for regionally adapted
conservation management for wildcats, which accounts for
the geographically varying importance of hybridisation as
a threat for the long-term integrity of the species. Regular
monitoring of wildcat populations and hybridisation rates
is highly recommended. We strongly urge the application
of harmonised nuclear marker panels throughout Europe to
achieve supra-regional comparisons of hybridisation rates
and degrees of introgression in local wildcats. Only the col-
lection of further large-scale data allows a deeper insight
into the reasons and mechanisms of regionally accelerated
hybridisation rates in different regions and particularly at
the edges of the species’ distribution that may be more
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257Conservation Genetics (2020) 21:247–260
1 3
susceptible to hybridisation. To understand the dynamics
and consequences of hybridisation between wildcats and
domestic cats, we highlight the need for interdisciplinary
research involving palaeobiology, landscape ecology, ethol-
ogyand genomics.
Acknowledgements Open Access funding wasprovided by Projekt
DEAL. Samples used in the frame of this study were collected over
several years, and we warmly appreciate the help of numerous wildcat
experts. In particular, we thank Thomas Mölich and Burkhard Vogel
(BUND), Franz Müller, Manfred Trinzen, Annette Kohnen (FVA),
Malte Götz, Gisbert Geisler, Ole Anders (Nationalpark Harz) and
several federal conservation agencies (Thuringian State Department
for Environment and Geology, Lower Saxon State Department for
Waterway, Coastal and Nature Conservation, State Department for
Environmental Protection Sachsen-Anhalt). We appreciate the techni-
cal support of several members of the Conservation Genetics group:
Tobias Erik Reiners, Berardino Cocchiararo, Alina von Thaden, Han-
nah Jüngling, Yvonne Puder. AT received partial funding in the frame
of the BUND-led project “Wildkatzensprung” funded by the German
Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN) with resources provided
by the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and
Nuclear Safety (BMU). ACK thanks the Negaunee Foundation for its
generous support of a curatorial preparator who prepared the samples
from Scotland. MC thanks Luca Lapini (Friulian Museum of Natu-
ral History), Andrea Sforzi (Natural History Museum of Maremma)
and Prof. Martin Fischer (Friedrich-Schiller University, Jena) for
making the collection of the Italian samples possible. PM enjoyed a
postdoctoral fellowship funded by FEDER funds through the Opera-
tional Programme for Competitiveness Factors—COMPETE, and by
National Funds through FCT—Foundation for Science and Technology
(UID/BIA/50027/2013 and POCI-01-0145-FEDER-006821).
Data accessibility Sampling locations, all genetic raw data, and results
from the software analyses as reported in this study, including mito-
chondrial sequences, genotypes from microsatellites, and SNPs, are
available in supplementary information files. DNA sequence data
used for haplotype network have been submitted to GenBank and have
accession numbers KR076400-KR076428, JX045658-JX045661,
KX161418-KX161423, and MN518925-MN518932. Customized
R-Script are available from the corresponding authors on reasonable
Open Access This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attri-
bution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adapta-
tion, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long
as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source,
provide a link to the Creative Commons licence, and indicate if changes
were made. The images or other third party material in this article are
included in the article’s Creative Commons licence, unless indicated
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need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a
copy of this licence, visit http://creat iveco mmons .org/licen ses/by/4.0/.
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... The main threats for the Iberian wildcat populations include hybridization with domestic cats (e.g. Oliveira et al. 2008;Tiesmeyer et al. 2020), mortality due to non-selective methods of predator control, habitat loss and fragmentation (López-Martín et al. 2007). Diseases may also pose a threat, although their relative importance is currently unknown. ...
... No domestic cats were captured during the survey. Genetic analyses of four of the captured wildcats revealed that all were pure wildcats except one individual (FSC04), which was a first-or second-generation hybrid with domestic cat (Tiesmeyer et al. 2020). ...
... Using SCR models on camera-trapping records, Kilshaw et al. (2015) estimated 0.68 wild-living Scott et al. (1993) cats/km 2 in Scotland, but their estimate included both wildcats and hybrids. Despite the phenotypical compatibility of all our captured individuals with pure wildcats', one out of four individuals was genetically identified as a hybrid (F1) with domestic cats (Tiesmeyer et al. 2020). Therefore, the true density of pure wildcats in our study area might be even lower than the nominal values estimated. ...
Full-text available
The conservation of animal populations often requires the estimation of population size. Low density and secretive behaviour usually determine scarce data sources and hampers precise abundance estimations of carnivore populations. However, joint analysis of independent scarce data sources in a common modeling framework allows unbiased and precise estimates of population parameters. We aimed to estimate the density of the European wildcat (Felis silvestris) in a protected area of Spain, by combining independent datasets in a spatially-explicit capture-recapture (SCR) framework. Data from live-capture with individual identification, camera-trapping without individual identification and radio-tracking concurrently obtained were integrated in a joint SCR and count data model. Ten live captures of five wildcats were obtained with an effort of 2034 trap-days, whereas seven wildcat independent events were recorded in camera traps with 3628 camera-days. Two wildcats were radio-tagged and telemetry information on their movements was obtained. The integration of the different data sources improved the precision obtained by the standard SCR model. The mean (± SD) density estimated with the integrated model (0.038 ± 0.017 wildcats/km², 95% highest posterior density 0.013–0.082) is among the lowest values ever reported for this species, despite corresponding to a highly protected area. Among the likely causes of such low density, low prey availability could have triggered an extinction vortex process. We postulate that the estimated low density could represent a common situation of wildcat populations in the southern Iberia, highlighting the need for further studies and urgent conservation actions in the furthermost southwestern range of this species in Europe.
... One of the best examples of hybridisation between wild and domestic counterparts is the well documented case between the European wildcat (Felis silvestris Schreber, 1777, hereafter wildcat) and the domestic cat (Felis catus Linnaeus, 1758). Domestic cat-wildcat hybrids have been confirmed in most regions of Europe where hybridisation was investigated (Tiesmeyer et al., 2020), supporting the claim that this could be a key factor threatening the fitness and integrity of wildcat populations. The uncertain long-term ecological and evolutionary effects of this interaction on the wildcat, alongside the difficulty in unambiguously identifying wildcats, domestic cats and their hybrids from phenotypic characters, makes the conservation of wildcat populations a priority and an issue of global concern (Daniels et al., 1998;Oliveira et al., 2008). ...
... The uncertain long-term ecological and evolutionary effects of this interaction on the wildcat, alongside the difficulty in unambiguously identifying wildcats, domestic cats and their hybrids from phenotypic characters, makes the conservation of wildcat populations a priority and an issue of global concern (Daniels et al., 1998;Oliveira et al., 2008). Several studies have targeted wildcats' hybridisation processes (e.g., Oliveira et al., 2008;Say et al., 2012;Tiesmeyer et al., 2020), but most were at regional or national scales, precluding a 'big-picture' assessment that encompassed the entire European range of this felid. ...
... We used the database of Tiesmeyer et al. (2020) (n = 698), complemented with additional genetically-identified samples collected by the authors, as well as samples available at the Research Center in Biodiversity and Genetic Resources (CIBIO-InBIO, University of Porto, Portugal; n = 228) and at the Office Français de la Biodiversité (OFB, France; n = 291) (Fig. 1). The databases were combined and filtered to keep only samples putatively from wildcats, as identified by field collectors based on a suite of available potentially diagnostic parameters (e. g., coat patterns and morphological characteristics; Ragni and Possenti, 1996). ...
Hybridisation between domestic and wild taxa can pose severe threats to wildlife conservation, and human induced hybridisation, often linked to species' introductions and habitat degradation, may promote reproductive opportunities between species for which natural interbreeding would be highly unlikely. Using a biome specific approach, we examine the effects of a suite of ecological drivers on the European wildcat's genetic integrity, while assessing the role played by protected areas in this process. We used genotype data from 1217 putative European wildcat samples from 13 European countries to assess the effects of landcover, disturbance and legal landscape protection on the European wildcat's genetic integrity across European biomes, through generalised linear models within a Bayesian framework. Overall, we found European wildcats to have genetic integrity levels above the wildcat-hybrid threshold (ca. 83%; threshold = 80%). However, Mediterranean and Temperate Insular biomes (i.e., Scotland) revealed lower levels, with 74% and 46% expected genetic integrity, respectively. We found that different drivers shape the level of genetic introgression across biomes, although forest integrity seems to be a common factor promoting European wildcat genetic integrity. Wildcat genetic integrity remains high, regardless of landscape legal protection, in biomes where populations appear to be healthy and show recent local range expansions. However, in biomes more susceptible to hybridisation, even protected areas show limited effectiveness in mitigating this threat. In the face of the detected patterns, we recommend that species conservation and management plans should be biome- and landscape-context-specific to ensure effective wildcat conservation, especially in the Mediterranean and Temperate Insular biomes.
... The current habitats of European wildcat populations are situated in landscapes that are densely populated by humans and their domestic cats (EPFI, 2019). Thus, the risks for hybridization between the two species are high and incidences have been reported throughout Europe Lecis et al., 2006;O'Brien et al., 2009;Oliveira et al., 2008;Steyer et al., 2018;Tiesmeyer et al., 2020). In this light, different levels of ancient or historical introgression appropriated before or after the anthropogenic bottleneck could explain the differentiation of the currently observed metapopulation patterns in Germany. ...
... temporary German wildcat populations possess some of the lowest hybridization rates (Central, 3%; West, 5%;Steyer et al., 2018;Tiesmeyer et al., 2020). Accordingly, although we did find admixed individuals in all three temporal groups (Figure5), there was no hint of an increased presence of hybrids in any of the groups. ...
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Like many carnivore species, European wildcats (Felis silvestris) have suffered severe anthropogenic population declines in the past, resulting in a strong population bottleneck at the beginning of the 20th century. In Germany, the species has managed to survive its near extinction in small isolated areas and is currently recolonizing former habitats owing to legal protection and concerted conservation efforts. Here, we SNP-genotyped and mtDNA-sequenced 56 historical and 650 contemporary samples to assess the impact of massive persecution on genetic diversity, population structure, and hybridization dynamics of wildcats. Spatiotemporal analyses suggest that the presumed postglacial differentiation between two genetically distinct meta-populations in Germany is in fact the result of the anthropogenic bottleneck followed by re-expansion from few secluded refugia. We found that, despite the bottleneck, populations experienced no severe genetic erosion, nor suffered from elevated inbreeding or showed signs of increased hybridization with domestic cats. Our findings have significant implications for current wildcat conservation strategies, as the data analyses show that the two presently recognized wildcat population clusters should be treated as a single conservation unit. Although current populations appear under no imminent threat from genetic factors, fostering connectivity through the implementation of forest corridors will facilitate the preservation of genetic diversity and promote long-term viability. The present study documents how museum collections can be used as essential resource for assessing long-term anthropogenic effects on natural populations, for example, regarding population structure and the delineation of appropriate conservation units, potentially informing todays' species conservation.
... While IUCN classifies the species as one of "Least Concern" [3], several populations are declining due to threats such as habitat fragmentation, [4][5][6] human-induced mortality [7][8][9] and hybridisation with the domestic cat (Felis catus) [10,11]. In Europe, five main biogeographic wildcat groups have been identified, supported by recent genetic studies: Iberian Peninsula, central Germany, (western) central Europe, Eastern Alpine (Italian Peninsula) and southeast Europe (Dinaric Alps and the Balkans) [12,13]. Among these, the Balkan populations have received the least scientific attention to date. ...
... Although the study area was within the core of a protected area (NPKV), it is a human transformed landscape, where natural habitats are interspersed within intensively cultivated monocrop fields, villages and a busy high-speed motorway. Increasing our understanding of the role of such human-dominated landscapes for the persistence of the wildcat is important, especially in conjunction with recent range-wide efforts to examine the drivers of wildcat hybridisation [13] and humancaused mortality [9]; two major threats to the species [3]. ...
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The Balkan populations of the European wildcat are among the least studied. This study reports the first findings on the spatial ecology and activity pattern of the wildcat in Greece and compares them to those of better studied northern populations. We fitted five wildcats (two males, three females) with collars containing GPS and accelerometer loggers (E-obs 1A) and collected data from fall to early summer. All animals moved within a mosaic of lowland agricultural fields, woodland patches, riparian forests and wetlands near the banks of a lake. The trapping rate was the highest reported for the species. The home range sizes, estimated using Brownian bridge movement models, ranged from 0.94 to 3.08 km2 for females and from 1.22 to 4.43 km2 for males. Based on overall dynamic body acceleration (ODBA) values estimated from the accelerometer data, the diel activity of male wildcats followed the species’ typical nocturnal pattern with crepuscular peaks. Female activity varied seasonally, at times being cathemeral. We found only weak effects of environmental variables on wildcat activity, and no significant difference in the activity in open versus forested areas. Our findings suggest that human modified landscapes can play a significant role in the conservation of this typically forest-associated species.
... Notably, domestic cats outnumber wildcats (F. s. silvestris), threatening wildcats through hybridisation-although the levels of hybridisation vary considerably between localities [92,93] (for the African wildcat, Felis. s. lybica Forster 1780, see [18]). ...
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The free-ranging unowned domestic cat (unowned—not under human control with respect to movement and sexual behaviour), living in the Anthropocene, can live a strictly solitary life or in socially structured groups, depending on environmental conditions. This paper explores the evidence for evolution of new traits (behavioural, morphological, physiological, immunological) in domestic cats, to adapt to the variety of ecosystems they now successfully inhabit. While the domestic cat ancestor lived a strictly solitary life, unowned free-ranging cats today may live in multi-male/multi-female colonies in urban city centres, where they are dependent on food provided by people. Urban free-ranging cats are now more social, which has been reflected in different breeding patterns, lower infanticide, more frequent affiliative interactions in general, and different spatial groupings. This means there is a potential for domestic cat behaviour to be ‘misunderstood’. Recognising that negative impacts of free-ranging domestic cats in urban fringe areas must be mitigated, we discuss how understanding behavioural plasticity and other recently evolved traits of domestic cats may lead to management strategies that maximise health and welfare of cats, wildlife, and humans.
... Notably, domestic cats outnumber wildcats (F. s. silvestris), threatening wildcats through hybridisation-although the levels of hybridisation vary considerably between localities [92,93] (for the African wildcat, Felis. s. lybica Forster 1780, see [18]). ...
Welfare and management decisions for unowned free-ranging cats in urban environments should no longer be based on knowledge about behavioural ecology of solitary cats living and breeding in more natural ‘wild’ environments. We provide evidence that urban free-ranging domestic cats in the Anthropocene have responded to rapidly changing environments, such as abundance of food and higher population densities of conspecifics by adapting their behaviour (behavioural plasticity—the ability of a genotype (individual) to express different behaviours according to its environment) and social organisation to living in complex social groups, especially those living in colonies. Urban free-ranging cats are now more social, as demonstrated by different breeding patterns, lower infanticide, more frequent affiliative interactions in general, and different spatial groupings. We argue that this knowledge should be disseminated widely, and inform future research and strategies used to manage free-ranging cats across environments. Understanding behavioural plasticity and other recently evolved traits of domestic cats may lead to management strategies that maximise health and welfare of cats, wildlife, and humans—otherwise domestic cat behaviour may be ‘misunderstood’. Importantly, interdisciplinary research using expertise from biological and social sciences, and engaging human communities, should evaluate these management strategies to ensure they maintain optimal welfare of free-ranging domestic cats while preserving biodiversity and protecting wildcats.
... F I G U R E 1 Schematic representation of the known impacts of stray colony cats on biodiversity and humans. References cited for each impact category: predation (Loss et al., 2013); hybridization (Tiesmeyer et al., 2020); zoonoses (Milne et al., 2020); diseases (Chiu et al., 2019;Meli et al., 2010) F I G U R E 2 Stray cat preying on an endemic lizard (Gallotia galloti) near a cat colony located on Tenerife, Canary Islands. Photo by Dailos Hern andez-Brito AUTHOR CONTRIBUTIONS All authors discussed the problem and wrote the paper. ...
... Highly mobile species often cross jurisdictional and management borders, a situation which has important implications for regional and national monitoring programs. For genetic analyses of wolves and other species affected by anthropogenic hybridisation (e.g., wild boar; Iacolina et al., 2018;wildcat;Tiesmeyer et al., 2020), it is thus vital to include reference samples from all putative source populations. This will help ensure that dispersers are correctly identified, and that they and their descendants are not erroneously classified as hybrids (Harmoinen et al., 2021). ...
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Hybridisation between wild and domestic taxa raises complex questions for conservation. Genetic advances offer new methods for hybrid identification, yet social and cultural factors can influence study design, and the interpretation, application, and communication of results. A relevant illustration is hybridisation between domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) and wild canids, such as grey wolves (C. lupus). For regional European monitoring programs in areas with expanding wolf populations, priorities include shared genetic markers and inclusion of all relevant reference populations to ensure dispersing wolves are identified as such and not classified as wolf-dog hybrids, which may cause harmful management decisions. Beyond technical developments, hybrid research and conservation management can benefit from improved integration of legal and policy perspectives , recognition of phenotypic traits as broadly unreliable for identification, and attention to the drivers of, and responses to, evolution in human-dominated landscapes. Additionally, the proliferation of unsubstantiated reports about hybrids in popular and social media shows that communication based on verified findings of hybridisation is essential. Hybridisation requires more constructive discussion on how to balance potentially competing conservation objectives, and the integration of multidisciplinary perspectives. These encompass the welfare of individual animals and preservation of historical predator-prey relationships. Conservation measures centred on preserving the ecological function of wild canids likely offer the most sustainable prospects but require improved understanding of the extent to which their behavioural ecology might differ from that of hybrids. Accurate genetic identification is required to fill this critical knowledge gap, advance public discourse, and initiate relevant conservation actions.
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Understanding landscape impacts on gene flow is necessary to plan comprehensive management and conservation strategies of both the species of interest and its habitat. Nevertheless, only a few studies have focused on the landscape genetic connectivity of the European wildcat, an umbrella species whose conservation allows the preservation of numerous other species and habitat types. We applied population and landscape genetics approaches, using genotypes at 30 microsatellites from 232 genetically-identified wildcats to determine if, and how, landscape impacted gene flow throughout France. Analyses were performed independently within two population patches: the historical north-eastern patch and the central patch considered as the colonization front. Our results showed that gene flow occurred at large spatial scales but also revealed significant spatial genetic structures within population patches. In both population patches, arable areas, pastures and permanent grasslands and lowly fragmented forested areas were permeable to gene flow, suggesting that shelters and dietary resources are among the most important parameters for French wildcat landscape connectivity, while distance to forest had no detectable effect. Anthropized areas appeared highly resistant in the north-eastern patch but highly permeable in the central patch, suggesting that different behaviours can be observed according to the demographic context in which populations are found. In line with this hypothesis, spatial distribution of genetic variability seemed uneven in the north-eastern patch and more clinal in the central patch. Overall, our results highlighted that European wildcat might be a habitat generalist species and also the importance of performing spatial replication in landscape genetics studies.
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The impact of domestic cats on vertebrates is now known globally - they are a major risk for endangered and threatened species. Hybridization of domestic and wild cats must also not go unnoticed, so there are already studies across Europe with differentiated results on this. Especially in the last decades, however, the domestic cat has become an increasingly popular pet throughout the western world, and its numbers continue to increase, which can lead to unnaturally high densities in settlements, for example. To summarize the current state of knowledge on this topic we supplemented the previously published report of Hackländer et al. (2014) with current data and literature. In particular, the topics of hybridization, potential management measures, legal framework and food analyses, which specifically address the impact of domestic cats on biodiversity, were considered in an expanded manner. The research revealed the need for action on the topic, which should not be underestimated, and the necessity of both the acceptance of personal responsibility and the consistent implementation of given political frameworks. The paper appeared in the BOKU Berichte zur Wildtierforschung und Wildbewirtschaftung and is available online. Translated with (free version)
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The survival of indigenous European wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris) populations can be locally threatened by introgressive hybridization with free-ranging domestic cats. Identifying pure wildcats and investigating the ancestry of admixed individuals becomes thus a conservation priority. We analyzed 63k cat Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs) with multivariate, Bayesian and gene-search tools to better evaluate admixture levels between domestic and wild cats collected in Europe, timing and ancestry proportions of their hybrids and backcrosses, and track the origin (wild or domestic) of the genomic blocks carried by admixed cats, also looking for possible deviations from neutrality in their inheritance patterns. Small domestic ancestry blocks were detected in the genomes of most admixed cats, which likely originated from hybridization events occurring from 6 to 22 generations in the past. We identified about 1,900 outlier coding genes with excess of wild or domestic ancestry compared to random expectations in the admixed individuals. More than 600 outlier genes were signifcantly enriched for Gene Ontology (GO) categories mainly related to social behavior, functional and metabolic adaptive processes (wild-like genes), involved in cognition and neural crest development (domestic-like genes), or associated with immune system functions and lipid metabolism (parental-like genes). These kinds of genomic ancestry analyses could be reliably applied to unravel the admixture dynamics in European wildcats, as well as in other hybridizing populations, in order to design more efficient conservation plans.
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The degree of introgressive hybridisation between the Scottish wildcat and domestic cat has long been suspected to be advanced. Here we use a 35‐SNP‐marker test, designed to assess hybridisation between wildcat and domestic cat populations in Scotland, to assess a database of 295 wild‐living and captive cat samples, and test the assumptions of the test using 3097 SNP markers generated independently in a subset of the data using ddRAD. We discovered that despite increased genetic resolution provided by these methods, wild‐living cats in Scotland show a complete genetic continuum or hybrid swarm structure when judged against reference data. The historical population of wildcats, although hybridised, clearly groups at one end of this continuum, as does the captive population of wildcats. The interpretation of pelage scores against nuclear genetic data continues to be problematic. This is probably because of a breakdown in linkage equilibrium between wildcat pelage genes as the two populations have become increasingly mixed, meaning that pelage score or SNP score alone are poor diagnostic predictors of hybrid status. Until better tools become available, both should be used jointly, where possible, when making management decisions about individual cats. We recommend that the conservation community in Scotland must now define clearly what measures are to be used to diagnose a wildcat in the wild in Scotland, if future conservation action is to be effective. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.
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The interactions between animals and their environment vary across species, regions , but also with gender. Sex-specific relations between individuals and the ecosystem may entail different behavioral choices and be expressed through different patterns of habitat use. Regardless, only rarely sex-specific traits are addressed in ecological modeling approaches. The European wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris) is a species of conservation concern in Europe, with a highly fragmented and declining distribution across most of its range. We assessed sex-specific habitat selection patterns for the European wildcat, at the landscape and home range levels, across its Iberian biogeographic distribution using a multipopulation approach. We developed resource selection functions in a use-availability framework using radio-telemetry data from five wildcat populations. At the landscape level, we observed that, while both genders preferentially established home ranges in areas close to broadleaf forests and far from humanized areas, females selected mid-range elevation areas with some topographic complexity, whereas males used lowland areas. At the home range level, both females and males selected areas dominated by scrublands or broadleaf forests, but habitat features were less important at this level. The strength of
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Archaeological and genetic evidence suggest that all domestic cats derive from the Near Eastern wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica) and were domesticated twice, first in the Near East around 10 000 years ago and for the second time in Ancient Egypt ca. 3 500 years ago. The spread of the domesticated form in Europe occurred much later, primarily mediated by Greek and Phoenician traders and afterwards by Romans who introduced cats to Western and Central Europe around 2 000 years ago. We investigated mtDNA of Holocene Felis remains and provide evidence of an unexpectedly early presence of cats bearing the Near Eastern wildcat mtDNA haplotypes in Central Europe, being ahead of Roman Period by over 2 000 years. The appearance of the Near Eastern wildcats in Central Europe coincide with the peak of Neolithic settlement density, moreover most of those cats belonged to the same mtDNA lineages as those domesticated in the Near East. Thus, although we cannot fully exclude that the Near Eastern wildcats appeared in Central Europe as a result of introgression with European wildcat, our findings strongly support the hypothesis that the Near Eastern wildcats spread across Europe together with the first farmers, perhaps as commensal animals. We also found that cats dated to the Neolithic period belonged to different mtDNA lineages than those brought to Central Europe in Roman times, this supports the hypothesis that the gene pool of contemporary European domestic cats might have been established from two different source populations that contributed in different periods.
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Hybridization between wild species and their domestic congeners is considered a major threat for wildlife conservation. Genetic integrity of the European wildcat, for instance, is a concern as they are outnumbered by domestic cats by several orders of magnitude throughout its range. We genotyped 1,071 individual wildcat samples obtained from hair traps and roadkills collected across the highly fragmented forests of western Central Europe, in Germany and Luxembourg, to assess domestic cat introgression in wildcats in human-dominated landscapes. Analyses using a panel of 75 autosomal SNPs suggested a low hybridization rate, with 3.5% of wildcat individuals being categorized as F1, F2, or backcrosses to either parental taxon. We report that results based on a set of SNPs were more consistent than on a set of 14 microsatellite markers, showed higher accuracy to detect hybrids and their class in simulation analyses, and were less affected by underlying population structure. Our results strongly suggest that very high hybridization rates previously reported for Central Europe may be partly due to inadequate choice of markers and/or sampling design. Our study documents that an adequately selected SNP panel for hybrid detection may be used as an alternative to commonly applied microsatellite markers, including studies relying on noninvasively collected samples. In addition, our finding of overall low hybridization rates in Central European wildcats provides an example of successful wildlife coexistence in human-dominated, fragmented landscapes.
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The European wildcat Felis silvestris silvestris is one of the most endangered mammals in Poland. In 1954, when the Tatra National Park (TNP) was established in the highest part of the Polish Carpathians, the wildcat was considered a rare species but nevertheless present in this region. However, its occurrence was never properly recorded there. The aim of this study was to verify whether wildcats occur in the TNP using genetic methods to distinguish wildcats from domestic cats F. s. catus. Between March and May 2015, hair samples were collected from 40 lure sticks treated with valerian, a cat attractant, in a region of the park with presumed high habitat suitability for wildcats. Neither wildcats nor hybrids with domestic cats were identified using control region haplotype sequencing and analysis of different nuclear markers. However, thirteen samples indicating the presence of the domestic cat in the protected area were collected. The Bayesian clustering analyses of microsatellite and SNP genotypes revealed no evidence for any admixture with wildcats. While our study cannot prove the absence of wildcats in the study area, it strongly suggests that wild-cats are at least very rare in the region and a continued rigorous monitoring is recommended.
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Noninvasively collected samples are a common source of DNA in wildlife genetic studies. Currently, single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) genotyping using microfluidic arrays is emerging as an easy-to-use and cost-effective methodology. Here we assessed the performance of microfluidic SNP arrays in genotyping noninvasive samples from grey wolves, European wildcats and brown bears, and we compared results with traditional microsatellite genotyping. We successfully SNP-genotyped 87%, 80% and 97% of the wolf, cat and bear samples, respectively. Genotype recovery was higher based on SNPs, while both marker types identified the same individuals and provided almost identical estimates of pairwise differentiation. We found that samples for which all SNP loci were scored had no disagreements across the three replicates (except one locus in a wolf sample). Thus, we argue that call rate (amplification success) can be used as a proxy for genotype quality, allowing the reduction of replication effort when call rate is high. Furthermore, we used cycle threshold values of real-time PCR to guide the choice of protocols for SNP amplification. Finally, we provide general guidelines for successful SNP genotyping of degraded DNA using microfluidic technology.
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The cat has long been important to human societies as a pest-control agent, object of symbolic value and companion animal, but little is known about its domestication process and early anthropogenic dispersal. Here we show, using ancient DNA analysis of geographically and temporally widespread archaeological cat remains, that both the Near Eastern and Egyptian populations of Felis silvestris lybica contributed to the gene pool of the domestic cat at different historical times. While the cat’s worldwide conquest began during the Neolithic period in the Near East, its dispersal gained momentum during the Classical period, when the Egyptian cat successfully spread throughout the Old World. The expansion patterns and ranges suggest dispersal along human maritime and terrestrial routes of trade and connectivity. A coat-colour variant was found at high frequency only after the Middle Ages, suggesting that directed breeding of cats occurred later than with most other domesticated animals.