Asiatic wildcat with classic tabby pattern spotted in Rajasthan, experts say genetic study needed to confirm

The face and neck of the individual had the same patterns as an Asiatic desert cat while the back had the Classic Tabby pattern. Image by Radheshyam Bishnoi.

  • A classic tabby patterned wildcat spotted near Desert National Park surprises wildlife biologist Sumit Dookia who spotted the individual for the first time in 16 years.
  • The individual had a coat pattern like that of a clouded leopard on its back while its neck and face bore marks similar to that of an Asiatic wildcat.
  • Wildlife conservationists and scientists say in-depth study of its genetic material is required to understand its correct identity and reasons behind the markings. 

Wildlife biologist Sumit Dookia was taken aback when he first spotted the unique patterned Asiatic wildcat (Felis lybica ornate) outside of the Desert National Park in Rajasthan while on the fieldwork for the seven-year-long research he has been undertaking on the species.

The individual of the Indian desert cat had markings similar to that of a clouded leopard. These close cousins of the domestic cat, commonly known as the Indian desert cat, Asiatic steppe cat, or Afro-Asian wildcat are generally characterised by their sandy to reddish-brown coats. The long slender legs and tail are marked with stripes while the body is covered in black spots.

The Asiatic wildcat – closest cousins of the domestic cat – are generally characterised by their sandy to reddish-brown coats. Image by Radheshyam Bishnoi.

The range of the species extends from the Eastern Caspian region, north to Kazakhstan, into Pakistan, western India, western China and Mongolia. It is categorised as a species of least concern in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List but due to limited studies and no proper census of its population, it is hard to determine its present status as it faces several threats such as habitat loss and hybridisation.

“I have been working in this region since 2011 but it was the first time that I spotted this cat and luckily we could get photographs too,” said Dookia, Assistant Professor, University School of Environment Management, GGS Indraprastha University, New Delhi told Mongabay-India.

The unique individual, with a grey-black marble pattern spotted in the scrub forests outside the boundary of the Desert National Park of Rajasthan, piqued Dookia’s curiosity who then read up on the patterns of the cat and how they came by.

“Asiatic wildcats have a spotted pelt with a sandy-brown coat, which becomes lighter or darker depending upon its range and habitat. But this classic tabby pattern was the first of its kind in over 200 small cats of various species that I have seen over the years. While this pattern is common in domestic cats, it was the first time that we saw it in this felid species,” he said.

Dookia shared the photo with other small-cat experts, like Shomita Mukherjee, principal scientist at Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History to confirm if the male cat that they spotted was an Indian desert cat or not. While the two scientists say that they cannot guarantee that the individual was in fact of the Asiatic wildcat species without studying its genetic material, they are leaning towards the possibility due to several reasons.

The range of the Asiatic wildcat extends from the Eastern Caspian region, north to Kazakhstan, into Pakistan, western India, western China and Mongolia. Image by Radheshyam Bishnoi.

“We are leaning towards the possibility of it being an individual of the Indian desert cat species because of its shy behaviour and similarity of appearance from the front side. Its face and neck had the same patterns as an Asiatic desert cat while the back had the classic tabby pattern. Besides, the place where it was spotted does not have any human habitation for a long stretch, minimising its chances of hybridisation with the domestic cat,” Dookia added.

“This is interesting but not unexpected. It is most likely an Afro-Asian wildcat but it is hard to say that it was indeed an Asiatic wildcat and not just a domestic cat. No one can confirm this without a detailed genetic study,” said Mukherjee. “These mutations are also found in house cats, known as the classic tabby pattern”

Radheshyam Bishnoi, a local conservationist and photographer who accompanied Dookia was lucky to glimpse the marble-patterned individual twice.

“I was caught by surprise when we first saw it in March 2023,” said Bishnoi. “I pulled out my camera and began clicking away but could only get two shots before it jumped over the fence and vanished into the DNP. I spotted it again in October last year,” he added.

Tabby patterns and their evolution

One of the most commonly found patterns in cats, especially house cats, is the classic tabby pattern – whorls or spirals.

“Tabby is anything with stripes and dots. There are different types of tabby patterns on the coat of cats,” explained Mukherjee.

While Mackerel Tabby cats have a striped pelt and rings around their tails and legs, spotted tabbies, as the name suggests, are those with coats covered in small, round spots. The next in line is the ticked tabby, which does not have clear stripes or spots but has bands of dark and light hairs, called agouti hairs, running across their bodies. Tabby cats sometimes have a prominent ‘M’ shaped marking on their foreheads.

A mackarel tabby cat in Japan. Image by Hisashi via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A study by Nature Communications studied the foetal skin of domestic cats to identify when, where, and how, during foetal development, felid colour patterns are established. The research shows that the genes governing the patterns in cats are activated in the embryo’s skin cells before the fur develops. The foetal cells observed between 25 to 28 days showed thicker areas intercepted by thinner areas, resembling the tabby pattern of an adult cat.

Dookia speculates that if the male with this pattern multiplies, one or more of its progenies might have a similar pattern.

“While we can say that the genes that govern the pattern formation will be expressed down the line in its offsprings, we cannot determine when or in which generation. But if the population of these unique patterned Asiatic wildcats increase in future, the DNP can work towards its conservation and protection,” he added.

Banner image: The face and neck of the individual had pattern similar to that of Asiatic desert cat, while its back had the classic tabby pattern. Image by Radheshyam Bishnoi.

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