The evolution of house cats

May 27, 2009 • 6:17 am

How could I resist calling attention to this new Scientific American article, which combines two of my favorite things? The piece is by four first-class scientists, and is well worth reading if you’re an ailurophile.  Among the highlights:

All house cats descend from one species, Felis silvestris (otherwise known as the wildcat).  When I was younger there was speculation that house cats had either descended from multiple species, or had been tamed from the one wildcat species numerous times.  DNA studies described in the article now suggest that there was only a single center of domestication (they call it the cat’s cradle”) in the Middle East, and that all cats descend from the subspecies of  African wildcat called Felis silvestris lybica.

Cats may have been domesticated as long as 10,000 years ago, judging from a burial in Cyprus that included a cat.

“Oriental” breeds like Siamese and Burmese may have been isolated from other breeds of cats for more than 700 years.

Most modern cat breeds appear to have been created in the UK.

Lots of other fun facts and information in the article, which also addresses the perennial questions, “Why aren’t cat breeds as diverse as dog breeds?” (see yesterday’s post on dog “speciation”) and “Why did these unruly animals get domesticated in the first place?”

Felis silvestris lybica
Felis silvestris lybica

Photo courtesy of the African Wildcat Foundation

8 thoughts on “The evolution of house cats

  1. I was intrigued by the mention near the end of the article that domestic cats have been cross-bred from caracals, servals, and other wild cat species to produce hybrids known as caracats, savannah cats, toygers, bengals, and chausies. These efforts have produced features not usually seen in domestic cats, including new coat patterns.

  2. One of my favorite passages from the “Origin” (for its anachronisms) actually addressing the question of why cat breeds may not be as diverse as dog breeds:
    “Cats, from their nocturnal rambling habits, cannot be matched, and, although so much valued by women and children, we hardly ever see a distinct breed kept up; such breeds as we do sometimes see are almost always imported from some other country, often from islands.”

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