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Expediency of photographs to study the distribution of wildcats in South-west Asia

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By compiling a wildcat catalogue of georeferenced digital photographs from Southwest Asia, we investigated the plausibility of phenotypically identifying Felis silvestris caucasica (Caucasian wildcat), Felis lybica ornata (Asiatic wildcat) and Felis lybica lybica (African wildcat) through external phenotypic traits, in order to verify their known distribution, and identify any inconsistencies or gaps of knowledge. With this approach, we expect to move away from depending on wildcat distribution information being based primarily on expert opinion, and establish a more systematic approach to determine areas in need of further investigation, survey and monitoring with robust methods. We identified the Lesser Caucasus as an area containing possible hybrid individuals between these taxa. Further “ground truthing” may also be required to understand the distribution ranges of the Caucasian and Asiatic wildcats in the Caucasus and western Kazakhstan/southern Russia. We suspect their actual distributions may differ from the information currently published, with a possible range expansion in the north, as well as an overlap area in the Lesser Caucasus. The African wildcat was underrepresented in our image collection and therefore no firm conclusions could be formulated, emphasizing the need for further data. The wildcat catalogue is available as an online resource, and we emphasize the importance of such resource compilations, given the ever-increasing flood of digital imagery. We recommend the use of such tools for identifying areas in need of further “ground truthing” by means of robust genetic analyses. This plays an important role in addressing potential conservation concerns, such as the extent of hybridization between wildcat species, as well as with the domestic cat, the influence and extent of habitat loss, climate change, and species range shifts.
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