The indigenous wildcat, Felis silvestris Schreber, 1775, and the introduced domestic cat, F. catus L., have been sympatric in Britain for more than 2000 years. As a result of interbreeding, any distinction between these two forms has become obscured, although a range of morphological criteria (pelage patterns, body measurements, gut lengths, skull morphometrics) and genetic techniques (immunological distances, electrophoresis, DNA hybridization) have been used previously to distinguish between them.
A sample of 333 wild-living cats in Scotland was assessed for coloration and markings of pelage, standard body measurements and weights, and (for carcasses only) limb bone lengths, intestine lengths, and skull measurements. These cats were also classified as wildcat, hybrid, or domestic cat according to traditional pelage criteria.
Multivariate analyses on these variables, for adult cats, failed to show any clearly distinct groups. When each of the variables was analysed separately, only the distribution of limb bone and intestine length measurements suggested the possibility that two groups might exist. Group 1 cats had short intestines and long limb bones. Group 2 consisted of cats with long intestines and short limb bones. Although the characteristics defining cats in Group 1 were similar to those traditionally associated with wildcats, they exhibited a much broader range of pelage and coloration than traditionally described.
The groups exhibited a degree of geographical separation. The distribution of Group 1 cats was found to be related to certain environmental variables, namely mean annual temperature and land with poor potential for forestry and agriculture, suggesting that there may be a biological basis for the separation. The implications of these results on the identification and taxonomy of the wildcat are significant. The concept of the wildcat and the domestic cat as separate species can be challenged. The paper highlights the complexity and difficulties for conventional taxonomy when used as a means for distinguishing between a wild type and its domesticated form where there is interbreeding.