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Feral Cats In Australia: First Populations Arrived With European Settlers In 19th Century

Dec 07, 2015 02:15 PM EST
Feral Cats
Feral cats have become invasive pests throughout many parts of Australia.
(Photo : Flickr: Beverley Goodwin)

Feral cats living in Australia are descendants of those originally introduced in the 19th century by founding European settlers, according to a new study from the University of Koblenz-Landau, Germany. 

For their study, researchers from the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre (BiK-F) analyzed the mitochondrial DNA of 266 Australian feral cats to get a better sense of their evolutionary history and dispersal patterns, according to a news release. In total, the cats were collected from six mainland and seven island locations throughout Australia. The study confirmed that the cats likely arrived with European settlers in the 19th century, who used them to control rodents on sailing vessels and during settlement. But while popular belief states that Malaysian sea cucumber fishermen called trepangers introduced more cats to Australia around 1650, the study did not reveal evidence of a modern day cats originating solely from Asia. 

"The analysis of genetic structure and diversity of Australian feral cat populations answered the question of the time of feral cat introduction to Australia and revealed that remnants of the historically introduced cat genotypes are still discernable on isolated islands," Katrin Koch, lead author of the study from the BiK-F, explained. "These findings have implications for invasive species management, since our study determined a specific time frame for the arrival of cats to Australia, allowing us to link the time of introduction with the decline and extinction of several native species."

Relocating a species can have damaging effects on local populations and environments, including predation, increased competition for food and the introduction of disease. In Australia, more than 100 native species are currently threatened by the presence of feral cats and other invasive predators. 

The findings were recently published in the journal BMC Evolutionary Biology.

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