- Head Body Length: 40.6-66.5 cm (16-26″)
- Tail Length: 24.1-36.8 cm (9.4-14″)
- Weight: 2.4-6.4 kg (5-14 lbs)
The African Wildcat Felis silvestris lybica occurs across northern Africa and extends around the Arabian Peninsula to the Caspian Sea. This extremely wide distribution is accompanied by a very broad habitat tolerance, and they are absent only from closed tropical forest. Although thinly distributed in true deserts such as the Sahara, they do occur, especially in association with hill and mountain country. In North Africa they occur discontinuously from Morocco through Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and into Egypt.
It has an extensive distribution across the savannas of West Africa on the Atlantic seaboard, eastwards to the Horn of Africa, Sudan and Ethiopia; southwards it is present in all East and southern African countries. Recent genetic data suggests the African Wildcat should be divided into two species, with the Southern African Wildcat Felis silvestris cafra occurring south of the Sahara desert.
These cats differ from the European wildcats by their lighter build, less distinct markings, and thin, tapering tails. The African wildcat is very similar in size and appearance to the domestic cat, and the two can be difficult to distinguish in the field. The background color of its coat ranges from reddish to sandy yellow to tawny brown to grey, and is typically marked with faint tabby stripes and spots. Hairs have black tips giving a speckled appearance, and their legs are banded with black bars. A characteristic feature of this group is a reddish or rusty-brown tint to the backs of the ears. The long, thin tail ends with 2 or 3 black rings and a black tip. There is a line of darker fur down the spine from the shoulder to the base of the tail.
The African Wildcat varies locally in appearance. In general, from north to south there is a gradation of coat thickness, intensity of ground color, and amount of “tabby” markings.
There are two main features that distinguish wildcats from domestic cats and hybrids. One is the rich reddish brown on the backs of the ears. Domestic-wild crosses usually have dark gray or black-backed ears, but sometimes retain a little red at the base. A second striking characteristic is the wildcat’s long legs. When the wildcat is sitting upright, its long front legs raise its body into an almost vertical position. This characteristic pose, which is almost impossible for domestic cats or crosses, can be seen in the ancient Egyptian bronze mummy cases and tomb paintings. Even when walking the wildcat’s long legs and high shoulder blades give it a distinctive action; it moves more like a cheetah than a domestic cat.
Wildcats are primarily nocturnal, especially in very hot environments or in proximity to settled areas, but are also active in early morning and late afternoon. Studies have shown rodents to be the major prey species throughout southern Africa. This prey preference is presumably similar throughout their range. Wildcats seldom scavenge carrion.
The biggest threat to Wildcats are the domestic cats. Hybridization is widespread; there may be very few genetically pure populations of Wildcats remaining. Feral cats compete with them for prey and space, and there is also a high potential for disease transmission. Wildcats are also killed as pests in southern Africa. These cats can do well in human altered cultivated landscapes which increase rodent densities, although these are the areas where hybridization with domestic cats occurs and spreads.
Back to the main Felis silvestris page.