Deep in the alpine meadows of the Tibetan plateau hides one of the most mysterious felines in the world. The Chinese mountain cat, with its sky blue eyes, sandy coat, and unusual lack of markings, is so elusive it was only photographed in the wild in 2007. For decades, many have considered the stocky-legged feline as the only species. cat from China. But that may be about to change.
A new genetic analysis of more than two dozen Chinese mountain cats concludes that the creature is not its own species, but rather a feline subspecies that gave birth to several modern feral cats and the domestic cat. The demotion could hamper efforts to save the vulnerable animal, fears Jim Sanderson, a wildlife ecologist with conservation group Re: wild who took the first photo. “The belief is that if it’s not a species, nobody cares.”
The new study began as an attempt to determine whether China had independently domesticated the domestic cat. Most researchers believe that domestic cats first appeared in the Middle East around 10,000 years ago. But there was evidence that further domestication could have occurred in Asia thousands of years later. Was the Chinese mountain cat involved?
Discover, Peking University Geneticist Shu-Jin Luo traveled to the Tibetan Plateau, where she had done mountaineering in college – “a dream come true,” she recalls. Luo and his colleagues scoured the windswept heights in search of Chinese mountain cats to sample. It was not easy. Locals, some of whom hunt cats for their bushy fur, call the feline the “grass cat” because it blends so well into the dry stems of its surroundings.
This may explain why researchers have never encountered a living specimen. Instead, they got their DNA samples from road killers, old skins, and cats in museums and zoos. In what has become the largest genetic study on Chinese cats, scientists collected DNA from 27 Chinese mountain cats, 239 domestic cats and four Asian feral cats, another small feline found across Asia. The team looked at entire nuclear genomes, including Y chromosomes passed down from fathers and mitochondrial DNA passed down from mothers.
The question of domestication was easy to resolve. All Chinese domestic cats were genetically indistinguishable from their fellow cats around the world, confirming that all domestic cats were from the same Middle Eastern ancestor, the team reports today in Scientists progress.
But genetic analysis has also led scientists into a taxonomic minefield. When a French biologist first classified the Chinese mountain cat in 1892, he named it Felis bieti (after a French missionary), designating it as its own species. This classification remained largely until 2007, when mitochondrial genetic analysis suggested that the Chinese mountain cat was instead a subspecies of the wild cat (F. silvestris). F. bieti became F. sylvestris bieti, joining five other felines, including the Asian wild cat (Fs ornata) and the domestic cat (Fs catus) âAs taxonomically subordinate to the wildcat. Then, in 2017, a team of biologists turned the tide after considering the feline’s appearance and geographic range, among other criteria. The Chinese mountain cat was once again its own species, they said.
âIt’s politics, not science. It’s become a side show, âsays Carlos Driscoll, geneticist at the non-profit research association Galton Corp. To date, Driscoll says, experts disagree on what exactly the Chinese mountain cat is.
Luo’s findings largely support Driscoll’s 2007 study. His team found that the Chinese mountain cat, Asian wildcat, and domestic cat formed three distinct genetic groups equidistant from each other, and all three were much more closely associated with the wildcat than with small felines like the African black-footed cat and the jungle cat, which roams the Middle East and Asia. Together, this suggests that the Chinese mountain cat, the Asian wildcat, and the direct ancestor of the domestic cat descended from a wildcat ancestor probably around 1.5 million years ago, the researchers conclude.
“It’s a very nice study,” says Claudio Ottoni, a paleogeneticist at the Sapienza University in Rome and an expert in ancient cat DNA. “The genetic signal is pretty clear.”
Yet, he argues, the results only show that the Chinese mountain cat, the Asian wild cat, and the domestic cat should have the same taxonomic rank. Genes alone can’t determine whether cats are all wildcat subspecies or all species in their own right, he says.
Sanderson, who also heads the Small Wild Cat Conservation Foundation, prefers the latter option. As part of the 2017 effort that elevated the status of the Chinese mountain cat, he says the feline’s distinctive appearance and relatively ancient origin are reasons enough to make it its own species. “It’s clearly a different kind of animal.”
Sanderson admits he’s motivated by the desire to save the Chinese Mountain Cat. Estimates put the number of felines at less than 10,000, and it is classified as “vulnerable” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The cat’s illegal fur trade, habitat loss and degradation, and the poisoning of one of its main food sources, the pika, a mouse-like pest, pose major threats. And an influx of people to the Tibetan Plateau since the 1950s has resulted in a wave of domestic cats, which appear to breed with the Chinese mountain cat, potentially corrupting its genome.
âWe live in a time of extinction,â says Sanderson. “The Chinese mountain cat deserves as much attention as the panda.”
Luo agrees and adds that while the unusual cat doesn’t enjoy the same popularity as his country’s famous bear, people still want to save it. âEven though it’s just a subspecies,â she says, âit’s still very valuable.â