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Last Updated: Saturday, 30 June 2007, 00:17 GMT 01:17 UK
DNA could help Scottish wildcats
Scottish wildcat
The wildcat is one of Scotland's most endangered species
A genetic discovery could help save the Scottish wildcat from extinction, scientists have suggested.

A genetic study found 26% of European wildcats shared DNA characteristics with domestic and Near Eastern cats.

Cross-breeding with feral domestic cats has threatened the future of Britain's most endangered carnivore.

Conservation experts will use DNA in their work with Scottish Natural Heritage as they try to establish the number of wildcats in Scotland.

Comparison of genetic sequences enabled an international group of researchers to determine the relationships between different cat lineages.

'Genetic mixing'

In the course of the study, reported in the journal Science, scientists found that 28 out of 108 European wildcats carried DNA characteristic of domestic cats and their Near Eastern relatives.

The only way this could have happened was by cross-breeding between domestic cats and European wildcats.

This genetic mixing now threatens the existence of modern wildcats.

Scottish wildcat kitten and mother in captivity
An extremely rare Scottish wildcat kitten was born in captivity in Kent

Prof David MacDonald, director of the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) at Oxford University, has devoted more than 10 years to the conservation of the Scottish wildcat.

He said: "The most exciting thing about these genetic insights from the past is that they offer hope for the wildcat's future.

"In Scotland we've been striving to find a genetic marker to identify Scottish wildcats, and now we have one."

Prof MacDonald added: "Whatever the future holds, the domestication of the cat to complement human civilisation stands out as one of the most successful 'biological experiments' ever undertaken by humans."

The wildcat, once found throughout Britain, is now thought to exist only in northern Scotland.

The Scottish wildcat is said to be Britain's rarest mammal.

There are only about 400 of the cats left in the world and scientists warn they could become extinct in our lifetime.

DNA traces origin of domestic cat
28 Jun 07 |  Science/Nature
Species identified for protection
20 Mar 06 |  Scotland
New cat family tree revealed
06 Jan 06 |  Science/Nature
Scottish wildcat faces extinction
26 Apr 04 |  Scotland
Dig discovery is oldest 'pet cat'
08 Apr 04 |  Science/Nature

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