Could Chester geneticist save the Scottish wildcat from extinction?

Posted on 17th August 2012

Geneticists from the University of Chester are developing a test that could crack the Scottish wildcat’s DNA code and save one of Britain’s rarest and most iconic species from extinction.

A Scottish wildcat - but is it a hybrid or a purebred? Picture supplied by Neville Buck, of The Aspinall Foundation.
A Scottish wildcat - but is it a hybrid or a purebred? Picture supplied by Neville Buck, of The Aspinall Foundation.
If we can identify enough wildcats to develop a viable breeding programme, we can then look at ways of conserving this beautiful species and preventing one of Britain’s most incredible, iconic animals from disappearing from the face of the earth.
Dr Paul O''Donoghue

To date there has been no truly definitive way of identifying whether existing individual cats are pure-bred or hybrids and the latest  estimates currently suggest there are, at best, only 100 pure Scottish wildcats remaining in the wild, at worst, none.

“The Scottish wildcat is heading for imminent extinction, primarily due to hybridisation with feral, domestic cats,” explains Dr Paul O’Donoghue, Senior Lecturer in Biology at the University (pictured inset).

While there are ways of telling the difference between hybrids and pure-breds – such as the fusion of bones on its head, the shape of its jaw, and the length of its gut – these can only be examined once the animal is dead.

With living wildcats, identification currently involves examining their coat characteristics (pelage), which is difficult to do as camera trap images can be unreliable, often providing unclear or inconclusive pictures of the elusive creatures.

“Due to such difficulty in distinguishing pure wildcats from hybrids, there are currently no truly meaningful conservation activities being carried out to address this issue,” said Dr O’Donoghue.

“The only way to solve this problem with living cats is to develop a specific genetic marker set that can definitively differentiate between hybrids and pure wildcats, with absolute statistical confidence.

“This will allow the remaining wildcat populations to be screened for hybridisation and will directly inform future conservation efforts.”

For the past year Dr O’Donoghue has been working in collaboration with Dr Ross McEwing at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland WildGenes Lab in Edinburgh, on developing a diagnostic genetic test to provide solid evidence of how many true Scottish wildcats actually exist, either in captivity or the wild.

He has been given access to the very best ‘pelage perfect’ samples – taken from museum specimens – to provide a ‘gold-standard’ reference sample, the oldest of which is aged 132 years and comes from the British Museum.

Work on the test, which is being funded by the University of Chester, the Aspinall Foundation and the People’s Trust for Endangered Species, Bosack Kruger foundation and the Summerlee Foundation has now begun in the biology labs at Chester.

DNA from the British Museum sample is now being extracted and by using cutting edge technology to scan the whole genome – which contains the entirety of an organisms’ hereditary make up – the team will be able to examine 63,000 genetic markers.

The same will be done for domestic cats and detailed analysis of the two DNA sequences will help the team to identify the pure wildcat reference marker.

“From this we can develop a subset of definitive wildcat markers to form the basis of the diagnostic test, which we hope will be ready by the end of the year,” said Dr O’Donoghue.

The results will enable animal conservationists to identify any pure-bred Scottish wildcats in captivity and – it is hoped – the wild, enabling new breeding and conservation programmes that could save this animal from extinction.

“I am hopeful that if we look hard enough we will be able to find pure Scottish wildcats out there in their natural habitat,” said Dr O’Donoghue. “And if we can identify enough to develop a viable breeding programme, we can then look at ways of conserving this beautiful species and preventing one of Britain’s most incredible, iconic animals from disappearing from the face of the earth.”