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Scientists are using DNA manipulation techniques to help preserve the Scottish wildcat population, comparing it to unscrambling an egg.

Researchers are currently devising strategies to help revive the population of endangered Highland wildcats in Scotland. One approach being considered is the identification and removal of DNA that these wildcats have obtained from domestic cats.

Experts have issued a cautionary statement about the Highland tiger, also referred to as the wildcat, due to its critical endangered status resulting from its extensive crossbreeding with domestic cats. All specimens currently exhibit signs of interbreeding, and a majority have lost their distinct “wild” characteristics.

Utilizing advanced genomics, researchers aim to undo this phenomenon. Detailed genetic profiles of specific creatures will be generated in order to identify those with significant wildcat DNA. These selected individuals will be bred with other felines possessing similar traits, resulting in a fresh population free from the mix of domestic cat genetics. This new group can then be reintroduced into the Scottish landscape.

According to Dan Lawson from Bristol University, the procedure is called de-introgression and it is like attempting to undo the mixing of an egg in scientific terms. He is the genomics leader of this project.

“We possess animals with a combination of two sets of genetic makeup. Our goal is to isolate these sets and restore Scotland’s initial population of wildcats.”

“It may be challenging, but the advantages will be significant, not only for wildcats, but also for other endangered species that are facing genetic inundation from similar animals.”

A wildcat kitten at the Saving Wildcats restoration programme in the Cairngorms

Moggies in Britain come from the African wildcat, Felix lybica, and are typically smaller and more sociable than the European wildcat, Felis silvestris. The Scottish variation of the domestic cat can be traced back to its European ancestor. Domestic cats were brought into Europe as farming expanded from the Middle East, and by the time of the Romans, they had become established in Britain.

Studies have shown that for centuries, the two species have remained separate with minimal crossbreeding. Wildcats tend to avoid humans, while domestic cats view us as somewhat tolerable and sometimes beneficial. However, this separation has been weakened due to factors such as habitat loss, car accidents, and the increasing population of domestic cats. As a result, there has been a decline in the number of wildcats in the 20th century.

According to Jo Howard-McCombe, a conservation geneticist at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland in Edinburgh, there were limited hiding spots for the wildcat and they started breeding with domestic cats that had become wild, resulting in hybrid offspring.

“Nonetheless, the interbreeding did not occur significantly until the 1960s, when we successfully established captive populations of wildcats in Scotland. This means that animals that had previously been brought to zoos and sanctuaries were not heavily impacted by hybridization. Fortunately, conservationists were able to intervene just in time.”

A group called Saving Wildcats established a program, known as the Wildcat Restoration Program, which utilized the offspring of these creatures. In the summer, they facilitated the release of 19 animals into a designated area of Cairngorms national park, spanning 600 square kilometers, called Cairngorms Connect.

Equipped with GPS collars, every animal is monitored in order to examine its adaptation to the wilderness and the arrival of winter in Scotland. An additional 40 animals will be reintroduced within the next three years.

According to Helena Parsons, who manages Saving Wildcats, the wildcats primarily rely on rabbits, mice, voles, and sometimes birds and hares for survival. While our cats have been thriving, unfortunately one has passed away due to an abdominal infection.

In December and January, wildcats mate and give birth to litters in the spring or early summer. According to Parsons, the cats will not be reproducing next year as they need time to adjust to their new habitat. However, it would be great if a few litters were born. Recent GPS data has revealed that some of the cats have interacted in the last few months.

According to Parsons, a crucial aspect of the Saving Wildcats initiative is to prevent feral and domestic cats from entering the release area. With over 100 camera traps in place, any cats spotted are investigated to determine if they are domestic. If so, efforts are made to track down the owner and inquire about their neutering status. For feral cats, attempts are made to locate and sterilize them.

The animals utilized in the Saving Wildcats initiative were raised at a designated facility located near Kingussie, called the Highland Wildlife Park. These animals were sourced from various zoos and wildlife parks in Britain, and based on stud book records and genetic testing, it appears that they possess a significant amount of wildcat genes. However, it should be noted that all of these animals have been impacted to some extent by crossbreeding with domestic cats.

The objective of the de-introgression program is to raise the percentage of wildcat genes by utilizing advanced genomics techniques. However, according to Professor Mark Beaumont from Bristol University, this project will not be a simple or swift process. He stated, “The plan is to allocate funds for monitoring the progress of the kittens, which can be costly. The sequencing of a single cat’s entire genome can cost around $200.”

Lawson supported this claim, stating that it will require 10 to 20 generations of deliberate breeding and genetic examination to restore the full genome of the wildcat. He mentioned to the Observer that this presents numerous challenges, particularly financial ones. However, they are currently seeking funding to begin the process. It should be noted that the breeding program represents the final opportunity to rescue the Scottish wildcat.

Source: theguardian.com