"Aboriginal cat breed" - What does it mean?
Shustrova I.V.
Probably, everybody knows the sayings like "Siberian (Norwegian, Japanese) cats, the ancient aboriginal breed known for 200 (1000, 2000) years is our national pride". The antiquity of the most cat breeds is a myth. "Myth disease" are rather frequent among breeders (not only cat breeders but dog breeders as well) and they are being intensely spread through the books and articles intended for the general public. The reasons are entirely clear: the number of legends surrounding any of breed is directly connected with breed popularity. Every beginner has felt flattered that he/she owned an animal the breed of which "is known back to Pharaoh`s times", originated "from tsar's palace" or, conversely, "from wild Northern taiga". It depends on what kind of exotics the owner likes. But the breeder in his work must be guided not by myths and legends but by the real history and breed genetic status.
Let us turn to definitions so that to understand to what extent one or another breed is aboriginal. The breed is a group of animals from the same species made by means of artificial selection, and which possesses some heritable characteristic morphological, physiological and behavioral features. The breed is called aboriginal if it was formed on a certain territory with the main influence of the natural selection and somewhat less influence of artificial selection.
Let us turn to definitions so that to understand to what extent one or another breed is aboriginal. The breed is a group of animals from the same species made by means of artificial selection, and which possesses some heritable characteristic morphological, physiological and behavioral features. The breed is called aboriginal if it was formed on a certain territory with the main influence of the natural selection and somewhat less influence of artificial selection.
It is everything clear as to artificial selection of animals with economic characters. Humans selected (left for breeding) the fastest horses and dogs with the best scent. But cats?… Pheral (or "street") cats have never been usually subjected to any other kind of selection except natural. Certainly, this natural selection was rather peculiar because cats live in anthropogenic environment and never in natural, but in any case such selection would not become artificial. The maximum development artificial selection reached in cats living in a countryside when hosts had preferably kept offspring form "excellent ratter". But such kind of selection have not practically influenced formation of cat breeds, otherwise now we would have breeds like "Yorkshire mousetrap" or "Kuban ratter". From litters of outbred cats living in city flats the at times hosts could keep kittens which enchanted them by their unusual color or affectionate behavior or if they were "extremely fluffy". And again, there was no long-term selection.
So, when could we speak about the really aboriginal cat breed? First, when on certain territory the artificial selection really occurs for any reasons, for example, the local believes that blue (or white, or short-tailed) cat brings to home happiness and success. Certainly, such selection was limited with one or two signs and other signs could, or could not, be fixed in local population depending on its inbredness. Therefore, isolation is the second factor in formation of aboriginal breeds which increases the number of inbred animals in this area. Isolated on island or in mountain valley cat population would be relatively small, so the level of animal connection would increase as times goes by. And mainly, in such population the outside inflow of foreign genes will be extremely small. In this case, genetic drift often led to formation of uniform population which could be conditionally called as aboriginal breed (conditionally, if artificial selection determined breed conception is absent). Turkish van, korat, sokoke could be considered to be aboriginal breeds. At some stretch, Turkish angora, traditional Siamese, Japanese bobtail and some others could be brought to this definition.
Semilong-haired "forest" cats
Situation with the status of so called "forest" cats - Maine coon cats, Norwegian, Siberian is the most confused. It is exactly them which are often called "aboriginal". It seems all right: those breeds look quite natural. But…currently present Norwegian forest breed in fact was developed as cultural and, moreover, in 70th of ХХ century (more precisely, the work on its formation started in 30th but soon after was interrupted). Certainly, images of "vikings` forest cats" and their descriptions in old books served as a basis for standard. But, vikings unlikely made an artificial selection among their cats! Interbreeding of those cats with wild forest cats which, probably, were widespread in Northland in Minor Climatic optimum time remains undecided. Native cats of desirable type ("phenotypical") and unknown origin formed the basis of the breed. With some variations, this type fit human ideas of wild forest cat (Felis silvestris). Until the first standards appeared there were no artificial selection among those aborigines in Norway. Important, that cats of desirable type from the countryside were used for breeding. Taking into consideration relatively small country size and peculiarities of rural way of life in Northland, to comply with the high level in population uniformity and genetic homogeneity was not the most difficult task. Additionally, first breeders of "Norwegians" were initially stuck to hard and fast rules in elimination of individuals with undesirable type or color.
Maine coon cats have even more rights to be called aboriginal breed. Primary population, "farmers` cats from Main State", was the real base for standard. But Americans with their inherent energy did all their best to maximize some breed signs, and to exaggerate the present type. Maine coon cat breed type was intensely cultivated, and "was not kept in natural inviolability" at all (as some American breeders try to present). To make sure, that is enough to compare contemporary cat pictures with those of 60-70th of the last century.
In an initial stage of breed development its breeding core is likely to include not only "farmers` cats from Main State". Probably, the "citizens" with unknown origin and animals from another states were among them. Even now, genetic heterogeneity of initial Maine coon cat population became apparent in rare colorpoint individuals or cats with curly (rex) hair… Certainly, offspring with undesirable breed signs were eliminated from breeding but breeders had failed to get rid the breed from carrying of recessive undesirable alleles completely yet...
Siberian Breed Origin
First of all, Russian breeders are interested in issues of breeding the national Siberian breed. It was based on selection of animals with unknown origin "under the standard" exclusively to phenes, i.e. external signs. Frankly, there were no unified "aboriginal Siberian breed" till "cat movement" had started in Russia (there was only about the following statement: "large cat with thick coat and no-white in color").
First Siberian breeding cores were formed in 1986-1989 mainly on the base of big cities cats populations where felinologic clubs had appeared first of all. That is why, the breed originators were breeders from Moscow and Saint-Petersburg (former Leningrad) clubs, i.e. from the European part of Russia. No Siberian cats breeders have never gone to distant settlements in taiga to find "purebred Siberians". They worked with material at hand. From "phenotypic" cats registered in Moscow clubs only a few had really pure Siberian origin.
Besides, in any big city (Asian or European) genetic diversity levels of cat populations are extremely high due to intense gene inflow coming with permanent delivery of new thoroughbred and outbred cats. City gene pool is like to be constantly mixed. And nobody can be sure that similar to Siberians city cat of unknown origin has no absolutely foreign "oriental", "Persian" or "European" genes. Most likely one can be sure in the reverse …
In Russia, when breeders had began to work with the breed they dealt with rather heterogeneous aboriginal cat populations which were Siberian in type but not with aboriginal breed. For example, in Krasnoyarsk (who says it is not Siberia?) you can see at least two main types of semilong-haired cats differed in hair texture, muzzle shape, eyes setting and some other features. And what type is more "Siberian" from the point of aboriginal view? According to my observations, the cats of desirable breed type are most frequent on the Far East, in the Southern and Eastern Siberia. Those animals have one peculiarity that clearly differs them from "standard" ("Europeanize") Siberian. In general, "Asians" hair texture is more fine, dense undercoat is something elongated but in quantity it does not exceed the general overcoat quantity. East-Siberian cat overcoat is usually longer with pronounced decorative hair. However, there are groups with relatively short overcoat among Far-East cats.
In the European part of Russia and in Ukraine we cam see only single individuals or small related groups of this cat type belonging to big cities and ports. Apparently, they appeared as a result of East-Siberian and и Far-East cats influence on local population genotype. Seemingly, that "Siberian" type is spread to …the Middle East. Once, I was lucky to see a female cat which precisely matched Siberian standard but she had been brought from the north of Iran. Its owners said that such cats occurred there so it was not occasional delivery. How must we call this cat from the aboriginal point of view - Iranian? Siberian? Or, possibly, Persian (Persia is the old name of Iran)?! And seditious supposition arose involuntary: the mutual ancestry cat type (together with others, for example, angoras) served as basis for both long-hair (i.e. present Persian) and Siberian breed… Possibly, periodically found "nests" of such cat type is the trace of some archetype, the evidence for ancient existence of the verily aboriginal breed that disappeared now … It is possible, but no more. To answer this question, special genogeographic and molecular-genetic studies should be conducted.
Siberian colorpoints - right to live
Let us discuss the question about the Siberian colorpoints detachment ("Neva masquerade") to the separate breed that had been lately raised by Siberian breeders. What are activists arguments for such separation? The matter is, that colorpoint color is not character for aboriginal Siberian breed and introduced artificially. Besides, from their point of view, this color could not be typical for aboriginal breed as it is not natural and must decrease animal viability. About the antiquity and aboriginal level of present Siberian breed were said above. And now let us discuss some details of colorpoint cats history in Russia.
  1. Evidently, colorpoint color was repeatedly introduced in Asian cat populations in Russian Empire. First reliable evidence is the description of cats from the settlement Insar (Pricaspian region) made by academician Pallas in 70th of XVIII century. Possibly, such gene exchange between European, Near-Eastern and East Asian cat populations existed even earlier along the Great Silky Way. On the other hand, East Asian colorpoints could come (and, most likely, they came) to the Far East cat populations by sea. Finally, in the beginning of the ХХ century (before the revolution) single Siamese cats (colorpoints, naturally) were brought to Russia from Europe and we can find evidences in Russian and Soviet literature (V. Bryusov, Vs. Ivanov). In general, allele cs could exist in all listed regions, although in low frequencies.
  2. Mass colorpoint animals "invasion" to Russian "cat environment" began in 60th ХХ century when S. Obraztsov had brought the first traditional Siamese cats. Getting into the street cat populations with enough frequencies, allele cs spreads as fast as a forest fire. Apparently, to some extent it was connected with eastern cats behavioral peculiarities (more territoriality, for example). It was also occurred in the USA, Australia and even in the United Kingdom. So, we can not speak about the any decrease of colorpoint cats viability in anthropogenic environment (domestic cats live exactly there). Russia seems not to be an exception. The problem is, that the studies on the cat color genes frequency rate till 1978 have never been conducted in our country. In genogeographical studies at the end of 70th - beginning of 80th colorpoint color was not taken into account (i.e. colorpoint cats were excluded from sampling). Now, in some regions these studies try to be continued but, as gene cs is being actively spread, it became rather difficult to ascertain "what it was earlier". But, even if the time when colorpoints appeared in Russia to be limited with "Obraztsov" import (although it is not quite right), 25-30 years from the moment of color introduction into the Russian populations were quite enough to fix the simple recessive allele cs in local cat phenotype without any purposeful breeding. Certainly, animals without any ascendant "East-Asian" features will be not so abundant but they will be. It proves that European shorthaired colorpoints live in local populations. Those cats were not knowingly created but they fully fit ESH standard.
As for me, the problem with "Neva masquerade" cats has two aspects: ethical and breeding. Firstly about the second aspect. "Neva masquerade breed" was not knowingly created by breeding, for example, of old type colorpoint Persians with "haired Taiwaneses". First "masquerade" cats had the same indefinite-"citizen" origin as the first Siberians had. Their desirable type was the same as in the early Siberian breed standard. It is quite another matter, that among certified (who passed breed identification) animals of unknown origin likely were both Persian and Taiwanese descendants. General practice, especially in European part of Russia, to use "city" cats with their heterogeneous origin and gene pool as breeding base predetermined the bearing of various alleles including allele cs. From such "pure" (read - phenotypical) Siberians and "Neva masquerade" derived. Exactly there, on the very early stage of Siberian breed development the problem if this color were desirable or not and must be excluded from breeding should be settled. The decision was made in favor of color under the "Siberian colorpoint" name. It is clear, that the breeding of this breed color variation has its own problems.
It is no secret, that in some Siberian colorpoint catteries visible "Persian" features accumulated: long undercoat and thick silky overcoat predominates compare to overcoat, weak covering hair, "dome-shaped" skull. In other catteries, animals have "eastern" features. Such animal appearance is a problem of poor judging, insufficient selection inside the cattery, but not the color variation in general. Long-term breeders work with allele cs in different breeds shows no linking between morphological characters and colorpoint color. And if "pure" Siberians catteries have not such problems?
Concerning ethics, breeders argumentation that Siberian breed is "aboriginal" and "natural", but "Neva masquerade" cats must be separated looks incorrect taking into account Siberian breed real formation. I hope, this sentence will not offend creators of the first national Russian breed. They still remain to be worthy of respect devotees. But the national pride needs to have more strong reasons than typical cats to be occurred inside the country. The real aesthetics professional felinologist find not in a fairy tales but in breed appearance, and true work is not a myth invention but creation of perfect harmonious living creatures. Showy and distinctive cultured breed that is a true object of the national pride.
It would be possible to recommend breed separation supporters to make their suggestions something like that: "We (i.e. Siberian cats breeders) think that Siberian breed must imitate human imagination about natural biological cat species (forest cat, manul) and its breeding must be limited by appropriate colors". Such position would be noteworthy and respect. Such tendency in breed development would "cut off" not only colorpoints but many other fantasy colors (in fact, only tabby variations remain). Another method to correct breed development is to investigate some Siberian areas, to reveal morphological variation and to count correlated different cat colors. On this basis, it would be possible to reveal true "Siberian type"... Probably, this is fantastic idea. Even the most staunch Siberian breed defender will never do such long-term work.
Siberians Today And Tomorrow
Primary difference in Siberian cat types caused by gene pool diversity in initial populations was overcame rather rapidly … in separate clubs and catteries. Breeding core sizes were limited by selection or, more precisely, predominant using of the best producers, and consequently, inbreeding to those producers was predetermined.
Against a background of such limitation rather competent breeding work with type and color have being done in the best catteries, breeding lines and breeding families have being formed. Now, cats from these catteries are recognizable and of the same type, and sometimes only the cattery name could speak to the competent person about the animal type.
However, primary stabilization period seems to draw to its natural close. Even the best breeding lines can not endlessly be in their own. Sometimes, differences between types cultivating in "Siberian" catteries reached so high levels that these animals seem like to belong to different breeds (and aboriginal…). The reason for "secondary" Siberians heterogeneity is that the most catteries or clubs isolated themselves in "their own blood" too rapidly. Additionally, this cattery breeding pool limitation is dangerous due to the high probability to fix polygenic heritable anomalies in breed. Fortunately, now only two such anomalies are known for Siberians: urolithiasis and hyperexcitability (and, therefore aggressiveness).
Breeders do not wish to put into breeding new, even most showy "phenotypical" animals as this "shorten" the pedigree. Naturally, Siberians with full pedigree are more valuable. The problem has genetic aspect as well: nobody knows what surprises could give genotype of animal "from nowhere". I guess, it is too early "to close" Siberian breed. Taken from small settlements cats of doubtless Siberian or Far East origin would be of use to renew the breeding lines.
But, if the fact that breeders are not interested in "phenotypical" cats could be excused then no breeding material exchange between catteries from different cities never could be excused. In any breed development stabilization periods for characters inside catteries must be combined with obligatory "blood renewal" periods. For the time being we have just isolated examples for such exchange, as a rule, between catteries in European part of Russia. It is a paradox, but in Siberia good Siberian cat catteries are extremely rare. The reasons why Siberian breed is "washed-out" from the breeding are the low breed popularity among local population (i.e. the breeder has no possibility to sell kittens) and local clubs low activity in breed propagation. As for me, the absence of interest in its "native" breed speaks not only (and not so much) about the lack of patriotism in Russian people but it indicates that stabilization of morphologic type in existing local ("aboriginal"!) animals alone is insufficient for breed cultivation. Active perfection for breed type is also necessary.
Only at first sight, cultivation of aboriginal populations seems to be a simple desirable signs fixation. The absence of inharmonious lines and dysgenesis which are character for "extreme" breeds increases the impression of this "simplicity". Nevertheless, to work even with "wild type" breed is to suppose partial extremalization, maximization of certain, specific breed signs.
Let us remember how American breeders worked with Maine coon cats. They systematically perfected signs making the breed recognizable even for amateurs: combination of solid bones with remarkable length of body, tail and legs, size of ears decorated with brushes, angular contours of cheek-bones and muzzle which made Maine coon cats similar to wild animals. So, the features that uniquely determine "breed image" among Siberian cats have not been determined yet. And they would not be determined for a long time if catteries isolation (in every of them such characters are improved in their own way) lasts for more or less long period of time. In provincial clubs vicious circle is rather often: low interest to breed decreases breeding population so much that speaking about any selection has no sense and breeding time improvement is stopped. Remaining "amorphous" population is inexpressive and, again, nobody (buyers) are not interested in it.
As for me, Siberian breed further development mainly depends on coordination of breeders activity. This coordination means not only obligatory breeding material exchange but to elaborate general strategy in development of specific breed signs. Probably, some statements in Siberian standard need correction. This correction must be done on the basis of cooperation between breeders from different Russian cities so that to evaluate frequency and desirability of every type inside breed (more precisely, inside cattery). Main characters where differences between types could be seen are hair texture and structure, length of muzzle and body, ear size, form and depth of eyes placing.
Moreover, coordination breeders efforts would be unsuccessful without tightened judging. As long as judges would have to make allowances for "local types peculiarities" and for "aboriginal" animals, there would be no progress in Siberian breed. Finally, one more remark. Nowadays, many foreign felinologists are highly interested in Siberian cats and buy up the breeding material actively. Most likely, in the near future they will try to make notorious "breed image". They will explain us (they even try!), what appearance must have our national cat … We would not like to see events moving in such a way, would we?
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