“Siberian Exile” for Siberians: Will They Ever Be
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.
During 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 undue difficulty.
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
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 cats.
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 Armenia
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
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 desired
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
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
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” populations.
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.
This article html version is taken from Amante´s
cattery in Finland.