Wildcat (Felis silvestris)
The wild ancestor of the domestic cat, the wildcat (Felis silvestris) bears a striking resemblance to its tame relatives. In fact, domesticated cats have undergone few changes since their ancestral split from the wildcat, causing problems in distinguishing this species and its many different subspecies. The wildcat is hugely variable in appearance across its large range and, consequently, it has been the subject of much taxonomic debate. However, there is currently thought to be at least five different subspecies: the European wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris), the African wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica), the Southern African wildcat (Felis silvestris cafra), the Asian wildcat (Felis silvestris ornata), and the Chinese alpine steppe cat (Felis silvestris bieti). The domestic cat is sometimes considered an additional subspecies with the name Felis silvestris catus.
Displaying the appearance of an oversized, muscular tabby, the European wildcat has a long, thick coat, broad head, and comparatively flat face. It is rather compact, with short legs, wide set ears and a tail that usually exceeds just half of its head and body length. The attractive coat has well-defined dark stripes on the head, neck, limbs and along the back, while the thick, blunt-ended tail is marked with dark rings and a black tip. The Scottish wildcat, occasionally referred to as Felis silvestris grampia, is the largest and heaviest built of all the wildcat populations.
The African wildcat is slenderer with a long tail and longer legs than the other subspecies. The high shoulder blades give it a distinctive walk, similar to that of a cheetah, and it adopts a near vertical posture when sitting. The coat of the African wildcat is extremely variable, ranging from grey to red, often with dense spotting that forms bars or stripes. However, a characteristic rich red-brown on the back of the ears is retained. Generally, paler forms live in drier habitats and darker, more heavily spotted and striped forms occur in humid, forested areas.
The Southern African wildcat has only recently been recognized as a separate subspecies, as it was formerly considered conspecific with the African wildcat. It is extremely similar in appearance to this near relative.
The Asian wildcat is normally a pale yellow colour, although it is often reddish or yellowish-grey, and is marked with small spots that tend to form vertical lines down the trunk and flanks. The coat tends to be short, but this varies both with age and location. The tail has a short black tip, and a small tuft of hair grows from the tip of each ear.
The Chinese alpine steppe cat, the least-known of all wildcat subspecies, is uniformly pale yellow-grey, with longer, dark brown guard hairs. Faint dark stripes may run along the outside of the short limbs, along with two distinct stripes on each cheek, above and below the eye. The backs of the ears are yellow-grey, with dark brown ear tufts. Three or four rings encircle the end of the fairly short, black-tipped tail.