Elusive Chinese Mountain Cats Aren’t Domestic Cats’ Ancestors

Past genetic studies on feline domestication hadn’t included this wildcat native to the Tibetan Plateau

Chinese mountain cat
A Chinese mountain cat photographed in a field of grass. Song Dazhao, CFCA

A new genetic study involving the elusive Chinese mountain cat of the Tibetan Plateau has determined that this wild feline did not give rise to a separate lineage of domesticated cats in Asia, as some researchers had hypothesized, reports David Grimm for Science.

The finding supports the conclusions of prior research that suggested all modern domesticated cats descended from the African wildcat, a subspecies of wildcat that appears to have first been domesticated in the Middle East around 6,400 years ago.

The new study, published last week in the journal Science Advances, collected and sequenced the genetic material of 27 Chinese mountain cats, 239 Chinese domestic cats and four Asiatic wildcats. The Chinese mountain cat is so rare and hard to find that the researchers’ samples all had to come from museum specimens, roadkill and zoo animals, reports Jaime Chambers for Science News.

The curiosity as to whether the Chinese mountain cat might have contributed genes to at least some populations of modern domestic cats comes partly from the deep 5,300-year history between humans and cats in China and partly because the Chinese mountain cat had never been included in past comparative genetic studies, according to Science News.

Though the results didn’t reveal the Chinese mountain cat to have been an ancient progenitor of Chinese housecats, the analysis did show the two cats had been interbreeding for around 30 generations. This timeline coincides with an increase in the human population in the mountain cat’s range along the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau in the 1950s, and likely an introduction of a large number of domesticated cats.

According to Science, this particular finding increases the risk that the Chinese mountain cat will go extinct, with its distinctive wildcat genes being eroded over time via interbreeding with domestic cats.

The genetic results also suggest the Chinese mountain cat is a subspecies of wildcat rather than its own separate species. This too could have a negative impact for the conservation of the Chinese mountain cat, which is listed as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and is estimated to have a global population of less than 10,000 individuals. Per the IUCN, the cat’s population is in decline, largely due to habitat loss, rodenticide poisoning and illegal hunting for its fluffy coat.

Though the stocky, 15- to 20-pound Chinese mountain cat has a distinctive appearance—a softly dappled brown coat the color of dried out grass and piercing, glacial blue eyes—Jim Sanderson, a wildlife ecologist with the conservation organization Re:wild, tells Science that “the belief is that if it’s not a species, nobody cares.”

The taxonomic question of whether the Chinese mountain cat is a species or a subspecies may seem like no big deal, but it can have important legal ramifications for conservation. So, despite the results of this and other genetic studies, there remains controversy around how exactly to classify the Chinese mountain cat.

Per Science, Sanderson has argued for this furry denizen of the Tibetan Plateau to be declared its own species. “We’re living in an age of extinction,” Sanderson tells Science. “The Chinese mountain cat deserves every bit as much attention as the panda.”