Biodiv Sci ›› 2022, Vol. 30 ›› Issue (9): 22396.  DOI: 10.17520/biods.2022396

Special Issue: 青藏高原生物多样性与生态安全

• Special Feature: Research and Conservation of China's Felidae Species • Previous Articles     Next Articles

The evolutionary genetics, taxonomy, and conservation of the Chinese mountain cat

Ke Liu1,2, Sicheng Han1,2, He Yu1, Shu-Jin Luo1,2,*()   

  1. 1. State Key Laboratory of Protein and Plant Gene Research, School of Life Sciences, Peking University, Beijing 100871
    2. Peking-Tsinghua Center for Life Sciences, Academy for Advanced Interdisciplinary Studies, Peking University, Beijing 100871
  • Received:2022-07-12 Accepted:2022-09-22 Online:2022-09-20 Published:2022-09-27
  • Contact: Shu-Jin Luo


Background & Aims The Chinese mountain cat (Felis bieti) is the only wild felid endemic to China, and it is one of the world’s least studied felids. It is listed as Vulnerable in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and is listed as a nationally first-class protected species in China. Here, we reviewed recent advances in the distribution, range, taxonomy, genetic diversity, evolutionary history, and conservation threats to the Chinese mountain cat to provide a much needed scientific basis for conservation efforts.
Review Results Scientists have not reached a unanimous agreement on the taxonomic status of the Chinese mountain cat (Felis bieti) since its inception as a species in 1892. Morphological distinctiveness supports its independent species status, yet recent genetic studies revealed that it is equidistant with other currently recognized wildcat subspecies and hence should be considered a wildcat conspecific (Felis silvestris bieti). However, because of the divergent evolution that occurred over one million years between the wildcat subspecies, an alternative approach to resolve the dispute over the Chinese mountain cat’s taxonomy would be to elevate all F. silvestris lineages to the species level, thus retaining the Chinese mountain cat as F. bieti. Nevertheless, this proposition would require a comprehensive analysis of the entirety of the genome data from all wildcat taxa. In addition, a complex admixture scenario was depicted, including an ancient introgression from the Asiatic wildcat (F. s. ornata) to the Chinese mountain cat, as well as a widespread signal of contemporary genetic introgression from F. s. bieti to domestic cats across, but not beyond, the range of F. s. bieti. Regional socioeconomic change in the Tibetan region since the mid-20th century may have facilitated an expansion of domestic cats that had likely recently arrived to the plateau, setting the stage for their close contact, frequent interaction, and interbreeding with sympatric Chinese mountain cats. This raises concern for conservationists about the opposite direction of gene flow that may pose a threat to the Chinese mountain cat and jeopardize its genetic integrity as well as its evolutionary adaptation to high altitude, an issue with profound conservation implications. The IUCN Red List assessment confirmed the Chinese mountain cat’s range to be restricted to the eastern Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, encompassing the eastern Qinghai, north-western Sichuan, south-western Gansu, and a small area in south-eastern Tibet adjacent to Qinghai. The free-ranging population of the Chinese mountain cat is likely threatened by indirect poisoning by rodenticide, illegal trade, poaching for furs, habitat loss, fragmentation, and road kills caused by grazing and infrastructure development, as well as potential introgression from local domestic cats.
Conclusion: There is an urgent need to assess the efficacy of current conservation measures in place for the protection of the Chinese mountain cat, including the effectiveness of the management of current protected areas, to safeguard China’s only endemic felid.

Key words: Chinese mountain cat, evolution, genetic introgression, taxonomy, distribution, threats, conservation