Alex Kolesnikov, PhD in molecular genetics
that is currently taking place all over, including pages of this
magazine (Droug, A.K), about the future of Siberian breed has elicited
important antagonisms existing within society of the lovers of famous
Russian indigenous cat. Apart from these opposite views, most disturbing
is the fact that many members of this society don’t have clear vision
of how the breed would have been developed. Why it is so important?
emergency brakes allowed in planes. Likewise, biological evolution does
not permit “bus stops” to land down and relax with impunity. An
evolutionary “stop” frequently results in steep and hardly
surmountable regression. This is true for natural evolution and is even
more true for the artificial one.
of understanding of some basic biological principles other than applied
genetics of fur coloration can play bad joke with a breeder. It is
especially true in the case of young breeds that require significant
work for stabilization of the cat type. Being captured in this maze, a
number of breeders as well as cat judges flooded Russian Internet
resources and printed media, with their opinions regarding Siberian
breed, which often lack any felinological content, yet full of emotions
and finger-poking. The energy and stubbornness of these persons would be
better used in some other, more focused and peaceful purposes.
fact, it’s hard, to get rid of a thought that in the fire of emotions
none of these persons remember about cats. In this article it would be
better to put this entire discussion apart and to concentrate on the
first and foremost issue of the breeder, the cats themselves.
the last decades we, alas, hear quite often the word “Red
Book”, “disappearing species” and so on. Natural evolution
on the Earth is more and more replaced by the anthropogenic one.
And probably this process will not turn back, at least in the
foreseen future. A stark example of anthropogenic evolution is
provided by cat domestication and spreading. A sufficiently large
population of domestic cats with common phenotype living in
similar environmental conditions can potentially give rise to
so-called “aboriginal” or “native” breed. One can assume
that it’s not a hard work to create new native breed starting
from this point. Presumably, such population contains rich genetic
material, preserved during the decades and maybe even centuries
partly by natural and partly by human selection. In a cat
community of this type differences between the representatives are
small enough to identify certain “type”, which is needed to be
developed, highlighting its most characteristic features, trying
to elicit the essence of the notorious E
Pluribus Unum, thus creating not the distilled “room”
breed, but the real, “wild” animal…
this way can be much more difficult, rather than it looks at a
glance. In reality, phenotype (or “type”) similarities
occurring in natural cat populations do not necessarily reflect
high level of identity between cats’ genotypes. Prevalence of
certain stably reproducible phenotype in q cat population does not
necessarily indicate that upon active artificial selection within
a part of this
population, this stability will be preserved and than easily
diverted towards desired changes.
basis of native breed is determined by the majority of felinologists as the
product of the spontaneous selection in the isolated synanthropic population
with common phenotype. Only in cat populations that are sufficiently large and
relatively isolated for long periods of time (many decades, or, better,
centuries), the genotype is also
stabilized. Only such population can be converted to a native breed without
of artificial selection preceded to the native breed formation can be
negligible (NFC, MCO), as well as significant (KOR). The latter considered as
“cats of fortune”, and even almost sacred animals in their homeland. The
pathway of stabilization of the population is thus insignificant, only long
period of any kind of stabilizing selection of either type is required to
achieve the genotype homogeneity.
from geneticist’s point of view, any population of synanthropic cats is much
more diverse, not to say chaotic than the “normal” biological species.
Nevertheless, such population obeys general biological laws. Knowledge about
these rules or patterns, during the breed creation and development can help to
avoid the movement to a wrong direction that can finally bring a breeder to
the blind alley (without even alley cats – A. K.).
of the population’s genotype (i.e. the sum and the distribution of all genes of the population) is described in terms of matching part
of genetics, the population genetics. Knowledge of the basics of this
discipline would be very helpful to the participants of the discussion about
Siberians and Neva Masquerade cats if they really interested to figure out
some origins of the problem.
us start from the rudiments. Where “Siberian” phenotype comes from, what
is a Siberian cat now, and what do we want to see in it in the future?
felinologists assume that certain archetypical cat in the past formed the
ancestry of many, if not all semi-longhair and longhair cats. The latter were
subjected to intense artificial selection. One can note that the fur of truly
longhaired cats, such as Persians, is, most probably a product of a long
artificial selection. It’s hard to imagine that the fur of Persians’ would
confer to the wild or semi wild cats any advantages during the natural
selection. A dense semi-long coat, subjected to season changes is quite
different in terms of selective advantage in natural conditions. Obviously,
even two centuries ago the human civilization was absolutely different from
what is seen now, and the role of nature’s factors in evolution of domestic
animals was much higher. Commonly accepted ancestor of domestic cat is African
wildcat, Felis lybica. Given the
differences between cats of Middle East origin and classic shorthair cats
which are direct descendants of Egypt cats, and, therefore, of F.
lybica, and to a smaller extent of Felis
chaus (jungle cat), one can assume that semi longhair cats of Middle East
acquired significant proportion of genetic material from other cats. The
features such as fur structure and length, solidly built body, and some other
phenotype elements are unlikely to evolve within the several centuries in
Middle East cats.
forest wildcat, Felis
silvestris, or to be precise, its subspecies is the most
likely contributor. Parenthetically, it should be noted that
zoologists count more than 20 subspecies of F. silvestris. Best known one is European wildcat whose role in
evolution of domestic cats in Europe is usually negated. However, the
habitat of the forest wildcat does not limited by Europe and includes
Middle East, Turkey, Caucasus, and partially even more eastern regions
such as Iran. Some divergent subspecies of F.
silvestris live in India and in Tibet as well.
silvestris - European wildcat
habitat area of Middle East subspecies overlaps with those of F.
chaus and F. lybica as well. It is this region, where the major focus of old
LH and SLH cats (TUA, TUV in Turkey and LH cats in Iran) is located.
This area can be considered as ancient homeland for LH and SLH
Felis lybica - African wildcat
subspecies of forest wildcat in Middle East is known as Felis
fur is dense, and contains well-developed undercoat in winter. And that’s
not surprising. Harsh winters are not rare in Caucasus Minor mountains, and in
Turkey and Iran highlands as well. Much of those territories are higher than
1500 meters above the sea level, and in winter nights the temperature can drop
to -300C. Speed of winter winds in this region is also high.
Summer, on the other hand, is very hot and dry.
is the reason why F.
caucasica have a semi long fur with dense undercoat shedding during warm period.
As we can see from the picture, F.
caucasica is characterized by a brawny cylindrical body, rounded
head with blunted muzzle, and visible but not accented transition from
relatively sloping forehead to nose, quite short massive legs, and
relatively short tail. In other words…reminds quite a lot…yes, a
Siberian breed. Is this an accidental coincidence?
Felis Silvestris Caucasica - picture taken by Russian felinologists in
probably it is not. An anecdote from Soviet era comes to mind, about the
pilferer, who purloined components from the firearms factory, which also
produced bicycles or other civilian stuff…doesn’t matter, in hope to
assemble something for home use, but every time he tried – he got
Kalashnikovs… Let him off easy, because this simple anecdote serves as a
great illustration of basic genetic postulates and points at the case under
discussion as well.
exactly, the genes defining long fur, emerged in the population of house cats
is not known. It is however not particularly important whether wild SLH cats
have been domesticated independently, or cats migrated from a major
domestication centres in Egypt and Asia Minor to the East, acquired the
appropriate genetic material from the wildcats on their way. Important is,
that as a result, Siberian cat has a clearly identifiable phenotypical
prototype; most probably it is the Eastern subspecies of European forest cat
located in Caucasus and Asia Minor region.
the fur of the European forest cat cannot be qualified as fully
“short”, is still hard to compare with dense and hard fur of F.
Interestingly, the plasticity of the wildcat is so high that in the
mountains regions of Europe, the Alps and Pyrenees, the length of fur
of wild forest cats increases comparing to “classic” European
wildcat (see the picture)
is possible to imagine the ways, by which phenotype of semi long haired cat
has spread from the Caucasian-Asia Minor region further to the East,
recreating into sinanthropic animals. Unlike Medieval Europe, the lands of
Asia Minor and Caucasus in 7-14th centuries of Common Era, were
“blooming”. A cat in the Moslem countries is an animal, which is beloved
if not sacred. That is why it is safe to assume that cats from Persia and
Arabic world, and later from Turkey have spread with merchants to the east and
northeast directions. And, probably they looked very much like modern SLH cats
in Russia. As additional prove of this theory is the existence of Bukharian
cat, now almost forgotten in Russia, which looks much like both modern
Siberian and Caucasian forest cat. Migrating in such way, together with Moslem
population and merchants to the north-east, archetypical SLH cat reached first
the regions of Central Asia and Kazakhstan, and from there Volga and South
Siberia. And after that, SLH cats have spread further to Siberia and European
Russia. It’s highly probable that after Russia liberated from the Tatar
yoke, the alternative flow of cats from Europe to Russia increased. But, it
happened not earlier than in 15th and 16th centuries…
characteristic features of Caucasian forest cat, which allowed it to survive
in continental climate, with harsh winter in the highland forests, played a
big role in the modern standard of Siberians. That is why preservation of
these features, accenting and unification of these features in Siberian breed
would be the wisest way in the breed development.
F. silvestris caucasica is endangered species placed into the Red
Book of Russian Federation. It is under state law protection in Armenia as
well. This fact, which lacks direct relation to the discussed issue is brought
for the reason, so I can bring you back to the problem of behaviour of
population in the process of natural evolution as well as in the process of
beginning and development of the breed. When
a species is considered as endangered? It happens when the population numbers
decrease to a few thousand animals. At this point, the population fate fall
under influence of circumstances that can abruptly change the way of natural
selection. In population genetics such processes are termed as “genetic
drift” and “bottleneck effect”.
processes can induce replacement of characteristic population genotype by
totally different one, which was present in the initial population in a very
small proportion. In artificial selection within small population with unknown
genotype it is very difficult to predict selection outcome and, accordingly,
difficult to achieve desired stable changes in the phenotype. In other words,
the more is degree of genetic diversity in small population taken for
selection, the less is the chance of its successful “guiding” towards
means, that during selection, towards for example, a fur colour, some other
unwanted change in phenotype can happen. These can be changes in length of
legs, form of head, fixation of predisposition to a hereditary disease, and
other. And the chances of such unwanted effects grow with the decrease in the
population size and with each generation born in such population separated
from the original gene pool.
all, let’s see how many Siberians of good quality at this time are actively
participating in selection in Russia and countries of ex – USSR? Rough
calculations made with the help of the Internet show that number of these
animals does not exceed one and a half to two thousands.
Besides, if consider that a big part of them doesn’t have even
theoretical opportunity to mate with each other, and many
subpopulations of Siberians are highly inbred, the situation looks even
more serious. Although Siberian cats are not under direct threat of
extinction, the quality of the
mating in their population from the point of view of preserving in the
mentioned genetic terms and purposeful improvement of the breed is at the
level, which is characteristic for the most dangerous situation, described in
the Red Book. There is something to think about, isn’t it?
end of the first part.
outlined here past and present of Siberian cats and discussed general problems
encountered in development of native breeds starting from the “wild”
the second part we turn the attention directly to the situation with Neva
Masquerade cats, their relation to the Siberian breed, their origin, etc
applying the topics discussed in the Part 1.
A. Kolesnikov, Moscow, Russia ( English version of an originally Russian article published
in the Russian Cat Magazine "Droug" in January 2003. The
original article uses partly different illustration).