11 Fierce Facts About Scottish Wildcats


Each year, over a million tourists descend on northern Scotland, where many hope to catch a glimpse of the legendary Loch Ness Monster. And yet, roaming the countryside is another mysterious beast, one that’s every bit as interwoven into the area’s cultural fabric. It’s a remarkable predator whose bold stripes and sheer ferocity have earned it the nickname “highlands tiger.” Ladies and gentlemen, meet the Scottish wildcat.


There was a time when many native cats roamed England, Wales, and Scotland. Fourteen thousand years ago, UK forests were home to cave lions. By the time rising sea levels separated Great Britain from the rest of Europe around 8200 years ago, a few Eurasian cat species had settled there. Another feline resident was the lynx, an animal that vanished from the island after the 7th century CE.

At some point, a population of so-called wildcats was also established in Britain. Comparable in both size and appearance to housecats, these creatures are still at large on the island—although habitat loss and overhunting has restricted their range to the northernmost recesses of Scotland. With Britain’s lynx and lions long gone, Scottish wildcats are the only indigenous felines left in the United Kingdom.



You’ll sometimes hear it said that this animal is a subspecies of the wildcat, also known as Felis silvestris. DNA testing has shown that the kitten currently napping on your sofa is itself a subspecies of wildcat, one that scientists call Felis silvestris catus.

It’s believed that the common housecat first emerged around 9000 to 10,000 years ago. The popular pet is directly descended from Felis silvestris lybica, or the “African wildcat.” As its name implies, the animal can be found throughout Africa, plus certain parts of the Arabian Peninsula. Were you to travel eastward from there, you might encounter the aptly-named Asiatic wildcat (Felis silvestris ornate), another subspecies that roams from Central Asia to western India.

This brings us to the European wildcat, Felis silvestris silvestris. Because of its unusually thick coat, the beast looks much bulkier than its Asiatic and African relatives. Also, while the Asian wildcat essentially mates year-round, the European variety only breeds from January to March.

So where do highland tigers fit into the family portrait? Some mammal experts believe that the Scottish wildcat should be regarded as its own subspecies, Felis silvestris grampia. Proponents of this argument point out that Britain’s wildcats look atypically large when compared to those living across the English Channel. However, other scientists disagree and write off the Scottish felines as nothing more than an isolated population of European wildcats.


With their strong jaws, acute night vision, and ears that can rotate independently, highland tigers are formidable predators. Like many cats, they’re also opportunistic feeders. Those living in eastern Scotland primarily dine on rabbits, which can represent up to 70 percent of their diet [PDF]. But in the west, where rabbits are less common, wildcats mostly eat mice and voles instead. Wildcats will also eat assorted birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and small mammals. In rare instances, they’ve even been known to bring down deer fawns. Most prey is killed with a bite to the back of the neck, which either crushes or severs its spine. To dispatch bigger targets, wildcats will often clamp their jaws down onto the windpipe.


Wildcats are known eat long blades of grass every so often. The dense plants help clear a cat’s digestive tract by forcing indigestible bones, fur, and feathers out of its system. Swallowing grass is also a good way to dislodge parasitic worms, which the cats regularly contract by eating raw meat.


The highland tiger has an aggressive reputation. John George Wood, a 19th-century science enthusiast, once wrote that “When caught in a trap, [wildcats] fly without hesitation at any person who approaches them, not waiting to be assailed. I have heard many stories of their attacking and seriously wounding a man, when their escape has been cut off.”

Although Wood’s sources may have been exaggerating, the point remains: Wildcats shouldn't be messed with. And yet, they almost never lash out at human beings without warning. Should you make a wildcat feel threatened, the animal’s first response will be to stare you down, arch its back, and hiss like an angry tabby. If that doesn’t work, the feline will start moving toward you, stamping its feet all the while. Known as a “mock charge,” this maneuver is designed to make the cat look as intimidating as possible—if only for a second or two. A moment’s hesitation on the attacker’s part may be all that a cat needs in order to escape.

If all else fails, the cats can bite and claw with unbelievable fierceness. More often than not, the feisty little creatures drive off their foes, sometimes inflicting nasty lacerations in the process. According to the Scottish Wildcat Association, large dogs, park rangers, and ill-prepared veterinarians are among the most common recipients of “non-hunting wildcat attacks.”


The name “Scottish wildcat” is something of a misnomer. After all, for thousands of years, the animals were distributed throughout Great Britain. Unfortunately, human interference has driven them to the brink of extinction. The Scottish wildcat didn’t enjoy any sort of legal protection until the UK classified it as a protected species in 1988. Before that, trappers on the island had been harvesting their valuable coats since ancient times. As if this weren’t bad enough, the cats were believed to kill livestock en masse, so farmers deliberately killed them. Centuries of persecution—combined with deforestation—drove the felines into Scotland’s most sparsely-populated areas. The last documented sighting of a wildcat on English soil took place in 1849.


To many Scots, the highland tiger is a national icon. Nowhere is this fact more apparent than within Scotland’s familial clan system. Among many others, Clan Mackintosh, Clan MacBean, and Clan MacPherson have each incorporated a wildcat into their respective crests. The groups' motto is “Touch not the cat bot a glove,” with the word bot meaning “without” in this context. Sounds like good advice (although some consider it to be even more poetic, and say that the one without the glove is the cat—i.e. claws ready to go).


Solitary by nature, adult wildcats generally give each other a wide berth outside of the breeding season. Data collected from radio collars have revealed that an average female spends most of its time within a one-square-mile home range. Males are thought to have similar habits.

Your typical highland tiger buries most of its own scat. However, some droppings will be intentionally left exposed in order to mark territory. This is also done for the benefit of other wildcats. By smelling the dung, a passing cat can assess the leaver’s sex, age, and reproductive status.


The single greatest threat to the Scottish wildcat’s continued existence is no longer habitat loss or reckless hunting. Today, the real problem is genetic pollution, since the wildcat and housecat can successfully interbreed. Such encounters produce hybrid kittens—and unlike (most) mules, these cats are capable of having babies of their own.

Rampant hybridization has contaminated the Scottish wildcat gene pool to an alarming degree. Some naturalists estimate that just 35 “pure” highland tigers are left in the wild. Within a few generations, the animal could be rendered effectively extinct.

Further complicating matters is a potential epidemic of mistaken identity. To the untrained eye, the Scottish wildcat looks quite similar to the “tabby” breed of housecat. Concerned citizens are having a hard time telling the highland tiger apart from the very animal that’s wiping it out. Under the wrong circumstances, mistaking one for the other may have serious legal repercussions.

“The Scottish wildcat is enshrined as a protected species in British law,” notes conservationist David MacDonald in the above video. “For the law to function … it has to be possible to identify what is a Scottish wildcat.” In the 1990s, government officials tried to prosecute a gamekeeper who had been accused of shooting three wildcats. Yet, because an expert couldn’t confirm that the victims were, in fact, highland tigers and not tabbies, the charge was dismissed.

Fortunately, though, there are a few subtle differences between the wildcat and its domestic counterpart. The most obvious among them has to do with the shape of the tail. Whereas wildcats possess thick, bushy tails, tabbies have fairly slender ones. Also, you’ll never find a purebred highland tiger with spots on its back. Another key difference: In wildcats, the black line that runs down the spine terminates at the base of the tail, and in tabbies, it extends all the way to the tail’s tip [PDF].


How do you rescue an endangered animal that’s breeding its way into oblivion? Dr. Bill Ritchie sees cloning as a step in the right direction. Ritchie became world-famous as a member of the team that produced Dolly the sheep, the first cloned mammal to ever be created from an adult cell. In 2011, Ritchie started to research the possibility of cloning some purebred wildcats. The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland supported the idea, but as of this writing, no attempt to actually follow through has been made.


In May, the Scottish wildcats at the Chester Zoo in Cheshire—female Einich and male Cromarty—welcomed an adorable kitten, the first to be born at the zoo as part of its Scottish wildcat breeding program. "The arrival of the new kitten is a major boost to the increasingly important captive population in Britain," Tim Rowlands, Chester Zoo’s curator of mammals, said in a statement. "Conservation breeding in zoos is a key element in the wider plan to conserve the species in the UK and, drawing on the unique skills, knowledge and knowhow of the carnivore experts working here, we’re breeding Scottish wildcats to increase the safety net population and hope to release their offspring into the highlands of Scotland in the future."

Above is video of the kitten emerging from the den for the first time. We think you'll agree it's pretty adorable.

Bad Moods Might Make You More Productive

Being in a bad mood at work might not be such a bad thing. New research shows that foul moods can lead to better executive function—the mental processing that handles skills like focus, self-control, creative thinking, mental flexibility, and working memory. But the benefit might hinge on how you go through emotions.

As part of the study, published in Personality and Individual Differences, a pair of psychologists at the University of Waterloo in Canada subjected more than 90 undergraduate students to a battery of tests designed to measure their working memory and inhibition control, two areas of executive function. They also gave the students several questionnaires designed to measure their emotional reactivity and mood over the previous week.

They found that some people who were in slightly bad moods performed significantly better on the working memory and inhibition tasks, but the benefit depended on how the person experienced emotion. Specifically, being in a bit of a bad mood seemed to boost the performance of participants with high emotional reactivity, meaning that they’re sensitive, have intense reactions to situations, and hold on to their feelings for a long time. People with low emotional reactivity performed worse on the tasks when in a bad mood, though.

“Our results show that there are some people for whom a bad mood may actually hone the kind of thinking skills that are important for everyday life,” one of the study’s co-authors, psychology professor Tara McAuley, said in a press statement. Why people with bigger emotional responses experience this boost but people with less-intense emotions don’t is an open question. One hypothesis is that people who have high emotional reactivity are already used to experiencing intense emotions, so they aren’t as fazed by their bad moods. However, more research is necessary to tease out those factors.

[h/t Big Think]

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
The 10 Wildest Movie Plot Twists
Laura Harring in Mulholland Drive (2001)
Laura Harring in Mulholland Drive (2001)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

An ending often makes or breaks a movie. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as having the rug pulled out from under you, particularly in a thriller. But too many flicks that try to shock can’t stick the landing—they’re outlandish and illogical, or signal where the plot is headed. Not all of these films are entirely successful, but they have one important attribute in common: From the classic to the cultishly beloved, they involve hard-to-predict twists that really do blow viewers’ minds, then linger there for days, if not life. (Warning: Massive spoilers below.)

1. PSYCHO (1960)

Alfred Hitchcock often constructed his movies like neat games that manipulated the audience. The Master of Suspense delved headfirst into horror with Psycho, which follows a secretary (Janet Leigh) who sneaks off with $40,000 and hides in a motel. The ensuing jolt depends on Leigh’s fame at the time: No one expected the ostensible star and protagonist to die in a gory (for the time) shower butchering only a third of the way into the running time. Hitchcock outdid that feat with the last-act revelation that Anthony Perkins’s supremely creepy Norman Bates is embodying his dead mother.


No, not the botched Tim Burton remake that tweaked the original movie’s famous reveal in a way that left everyone scratching their heads. The Charlton Heston-starring sci-fi gem continues to stupefy anyone who comes into its orbit. Heston, of course, plays an astronaut who travels to a strange land where advanced apes lord over human slaves. It becomes clear once he finds the decrepit remains of the Statue of Liberty that he’s in fact on a future Earth. The anti-violence message, especially during the political tumult of 1968, shook people up as much as the time warp.

3. DEEP RED (1975)

It’s not rare for a horror movie to flip the script when it comes to unmasking its killer, but it’s much rarer that such a film causes a viewer to question their own perception of the world around them. Such is the case for Deep Red, Italian director Dario Argento’s (Suspiria) slasher masterpiece. A pianist living in Rome (David Hemmings) comes upon the murder of a woman in her apartment and teams up with a female reporter to find the person responsible. Argento’s whodunit is filled to the brim with gorgeous photography, ghastly sights, and delirious twists. But best of all is the final sequence, in which the pianist retraces his steps to discover that the killer had been hiding in plain sight all along. Rewind to the beginning and you’ll discover that you caught an unknowing glimpse, too.


Sleepaway Camp is notorious among horror fans for a number of reasons: the bizarre, stilted acting and dialogue; hilariously amateurish special effects; and ‘80s-to-their-core fashions. But it’s best known for the mind-bending ending, which—full disclosure—reads as possibly transphobic today, though it’s really hard to say what writer-director Robert Hiltzik had in mind. Years after a boating accident that leaves one of two siblings dead, Angela is raised by her aunt and sent to a summer camp with her cousin, where a killer wreaks havoc. In the lurid climax, we see that moody Angela is not only the murderer—she’s actually a boy. Her aunt, who always wanted a daughter, raised her as if she were her late brother. The final animalistic shot prompts as many gasps as cackles.


The Usual Suspects has left everyone who watches it breathless by the time they get to the fakeout conclusion. Roger "Verbal" Kint (Kevin Spacey), a criminal with cerebral palsy, regales an interrogator in the stories of his exploits with a band of fellow crooks, seen in flashback. Hovering over this is the mysterious villainous figure Keyser Söze. It’s not until Verbal leaves and jumps into a car that customs agent David Kujan realizes that the man fabricated details, tricking the law and the viewer into his fake reality, and is in fact the fabled Söze.

6. PRIMAL FEAR (1996)

No courtroom movie can surpass Primal Fear’s discombobulating effect. Richard Gere’s defense attorney becomes strongly convinced that his altar boy client Aaron (Edward Norton) didn’t commit the murder of an archbishop with which he’s charged. The meek, stuttering Aaron has sudden violent outbursts in which he becomes "Roy" and is diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder, leading to a not guilty ruling. Gere’s lawyer visits Aaron about the news, and as he’s leaving, a wonderfully maniacal Norton reveals that he faked the multiple personalities.

7. FIGHT CLUB (1999)

Edward Norton is no stranger to taking on extremely disparate personalities in his roles, from Primal Fear to American History X. The unassuming actor can quickly turn vicious, which led to ideal casting for Fight Club, director David Fincher’s adaptation of the Chuck Palahniuk novel. Fincher cleverly keeps the audience in the dark about the connections between Norton’s timid, unnamed narrator and Brad Pitt’s hunky, aggressive Tyler Durden. After the two start the titular bruising group, the plot significantly increases the stakes, with the club turning into a sort of anarchist terrorist organization. The narrator eventually comes to grips with the fact that he is Tyler and has caused all the destruction around him.


Early in his career, M. Night Shyamalan was frequently (perhaps a little too frequently) compared to Hitchcock for his ability to ratchet up tension while misdirecting his audience. He hasn’t always earned stellar reviews since, but The Sixth Sense remains deservedly legendary for its final twist. At the end of the ghost story, in which little Haley Joel Osment can see dead people, it turns out that the psychologist (Bruce Willis) who’s been working with the boy is no longer living himself, the result of a gunshot wound witnessed in the opening sequence.

9. THE OTHERS (2001)

The Sixth Sense’s climax was spooky, but not nearly as unnerving as Nicole Kidman’s similarly themed ghost movie The Others, released just a couple years later. Kidman gives a superb performance in the elegantly styled film from the Spanish writer-director Alejandro Amenábar, playing a mother in a country house after World War II protecting her photosensitive children from light and, eventually, dead spirits occupying the place. Only by the end does it become clear that she’s in denial about the fact that she’s a ghost, having killed her children in a psychotic break before committing suicide. It’s a bleak capper to a genuinely haunting yarn.


David Lynch’s surrealist movies may follow dream logic, but that doesn’t mean their plots can’t be readily discerned. Mulholland Drive is his most striking work precisely because, in spite of its more wacko moments, it adds up to a coherent, tragic story. The mystery starts innocently enough with the dark-haired Rita (Laura Elena Harring) waking up with amnesia from a car accident in Los Angeles and piecing together her identity alongside the plucky aspiring actress Betty (Naomi Watts). It takes a blue box to unlock the secret that Betty is in fact Diane, who is in love with and envious of Camilla (also played by Harring) and has concocted a fantasy version of their lives. The real Diane arranges for Camilla to be killed, leading to her intense guilt and suicide. Only Lynch can go from Nancy Drew to nihilism so swiftly and deftly.


More from mental floss studios