We lump. We split. We recombine. We split again.
Taxonomic disputes. Cladistics. Phylogenetic trees. We quibble. We quarrel.
I particularly love these disputes. They are what happens in this era of the Neo-Darwinian synthesis and the rise of cladistic classification models.
Ever since it was known to modern science, the tufted-eared wildcat of mountains of Qinghai and Sichuan were thought be a unique species, an endemic mountain cat of China.
It was called Felis bieti after the missionary naturalist Felix Biet who was stationed in Tibet. Pronounced the proper French way, Felis bieti sounds a lot like Felix Biet, though he was not the person who named it. Alphonse Milne-Edwards, the scholarly French mammalogist, named the beast.
And all was fine taxonomy-wise.
Then, as the Chinese population grew, they began to put lots and lots of pressure on the mountains. They poisoned the pikas and rodents, and the cat’s numbers have started to drop.
It might be easy to get people interested in preserving the cat.
Even more so, because its classical taxonomy has been called into question. A 2007 genetic study that sought to find the origins of the domestic cat found that the Felis bieti was actually so close to the wildcat that it ought to be regarded as a subspecies. This was a limited mtDNA study, which has its potential problems.
It could be that there is indeed a unique Felis bieti but that it has hybridized so much with wildcats or their domestic kin that they have a wildcat-like mtDNA sequence. So we’re going to need some nuclear DNA studies to confirm whether this is a subspecies or not.
If it turns out to be wildcat subspecies, then it might actually be easier to rally support for conserving it. People love cats so much that it often gets very hard to have discussions about them as invasive species, so when we have a potential close cousin of Fluffy or Morris that might go extinct, it might be easier to get people interested in preserving them.
These cats are found not far from the where the last wild giant pandas roam. The Chinese mountain cat, as it is known in English, isn’t quite as rare as the panda.
Taxonomic quibbles and quarrels do have political consequences. Some of them are good. Some are them are negative.
We use the information the best information we have, but we always manipulate symbols in order to rally support for our causes.
The tufted wildcat of China might be one of those species we might easily manipulate. The Scottish wildcat has been called “the Highland tiger, ” and even though it’s unlikely that any pure Scottish wildcats still exist, it has captured the imagination of the British conservation-minded community.
Perhaps something could be done here as well. People love that which is nearest to their own understanding, and domestic cats losing their closest wild kin is something that would bother many.
This is what has helped wolves in their public relations and led to their ultimate success as a conservation story.
A little wildcat could have a lot of appeal, and maybe it can be saved, bieti or silvestris or whatever it is.