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Study Reveals Role of Humans in European Wildcat Population History

Using whole-genome data, scientists from the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Center in Germany uncovered evidence that human behavior has affected the genetic structure of the endangered European wildcat. Humans and their effects on ecosystems are a known evolutionary force, and European wildcats, for example, have experienced declines in range and numbers amid human-driven habitat loss and persecution. Yet recent studies have shown that these animals have reemerged in various regions in Germany and that their range is expanding. To assess the potential genomic consequences of the wildcat's recent spread across human-dominated landscapes, the researchers generated and analyzed whole-genome sequencing data for 47 wildcats and 16 domestic cats. As they reported in BMC Genomics this week, the researchers found that the main population divergence between wildcats in eastern and western Germany occurred within the past 200 years and were thus likely due to human interventions, rather than ancient historical events. The investigators also uncovered highly differentiated genes involved in the production of the neuromodulator serotonin, which is involved in stress susceptibility and tolerance between wildcat populations, indicating that differential selection acted on the populations. "Our data suggest an evident impact of anthropogenic pressures on population differentiation and adaptive selection on German wildcat populations in the last 200 years," the authors write. "Future research should couple genomic evidence … with behavioral evidence … to test the hypotheses proposed above and gain more insights on how short-term anthropogenic activities and conservation strategies impact wildlife adaptive selection processes."