Research helps save Britain's rarest mammal, the Scottish wildcat

The Scottish wildcat is Britain’s rarest mammal with less than 400 remaining. The species is heading for imminent extinction, primarily due to hybridisation with feral, domestic cats.

There are currently no meaningful conservation activities being carried out to address this issue, due to the difficulty in discriminating pure wildcats from hybrids. The only way to solve this issue, is to develop a specific, genetic marker set that can discriminate between hybrids and pure wildcats, with known statistical confidence. This will allow the remaining wildcat populations to be screened for hybridisation and will directly inform future conservation efforts.

Without such a genetic system, it is extremely difficult to see a way forward for wildcat conservation and the species will undoubtedly continue the steep trajectory towards extinction. Dr Paul O’Donoghue at the University of Chester is leading the way to developing a diagnostic genetic test. Using the latest techniques that can screen the whole wildcat genome, a set of reliable genetic markers is being developed. Once in place, this system will revolutionise the future conservation efforts for this species and will play a major role in saving Britain’s last cat species from extinction.

There are opportunities for students to become involved in this project and indeed 3 undergraduates have already carried out very successful dissertations on the Scottish wildcat which has been a great boost to their cv’s and employability. By working closely with the Scottish Wildcat Association and the Wildgenes laboratory in Edinburgh, the University of Chester is playing a central role in wildcat conservation.

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