Cats, having moved in with us thousands of years ago, now number in the billions without even evolving, as explained by a biologist.

Cats, having moved in with us thousands of years ago, now number in the billions without even evolving, as explained by a biologist.

The Evolution of Cats: From African Wildcats to Domestic Companions

African Wildcat

As an evolutionary biologist, I have always been captivated by the wonders of the animal kingdom. While my research has primarily focused on reptiles, my fascination with felines has led me to delve into the evolutionary success of the African wildcat – the ancestor of our beloved household pets.

Among the extensive variety of feline species, it is the African wildcat that holds the prestigious title of the progenitor of domestic cats. This may come as a surprise, considering the relative obscurity of these smaller wild felines compared to their larger, more famous counterparts like lions and tigers. However, recent DNA studies have unequivocally confirmed that the African wildcat, specifically the North African subspecies known as Felis silvestris lybica, is the true forebear of our beloved companions.

So, why did the North African wildcat triumph in becoming our domestic companions? It was a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Around 10,000 years ago, the birth of civilization in the Fertile Crescent fostered the growth of settlements and the cultivation of crops. This region, spanning parts of Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Iran, and more, was home to various small feline species. However, it was the African wildcat that showed a remarkable affinity for human presence and settlements.

African wildcats are known for their friendly disposition when raised gently, making them amiable companions. In contrast, their close relative, the European wildcat, grows up to be rather fierce even with the most tender care. The African wildcats took advantage of the rodent population explosions facilitated by the advent of granaries, and their fearlessness around humans made them ideal candidates for human companionship. People recognized the benefits of their presence and extended kindness to these wildcats, perhaps offering them shelter or food. This interaction eventually led to the domestication of cats as we know them today.

The exact location of domestication remains unclear, but evidence from tomb paintings, sculptures, genetic analysis, and archaeological data suggests that domestic cats thrived in ancient Egypt around 3,500 years ago. From there, they spread northward to Europe, southward deeper into Africa, and eastward to Asia. The influence of Vikings in the dissemination of felines has even been revealed through ancient DNA.

Although domestic cats exhibit a wide variety of colors, patterns, and hair textures, they remain strikingly similar to their wildcat ancestors. Only 13 genes have undergone significant changes through natural selection during the domestication process, in contrast to the nearly three times as many genes that were altered during the evolution of dogs from wolves. The size of the cat’s brain and the length of their intestines provide the most distinguishable differences between wildcats and domestic cats. The brains of domestic cats, like other domestic animals, have undergone reductions in areas associated with aggression and fear, while domestic felines have longer intestines to aid in digesting vegetable-based food provided or scavenged from humans.

However, the most significant evolutionary changes during cat domestication are observed in their behavior. Contrary to the common perception of cats as aloof loners, domestic cats exhibit strong social tendencies when placed in environments where abundant food is provided by humans. These social groups bear striking similarities to lion prides and consist of related females engaging in grooming, playing, and providing care for each other’s kittens, even acting as midwives during childbirth.

To establish friendly intentions, an approaching cat raises its tail straight up – a gesture lions also employ, signaling a desire for friendship or proximity. Remarkably, domestic cats extend this behavior towards humans, acknowledging us as part of their social circle. In their communication with humans, cats have developed distinctive meows, using different vocalizations to convey various messages. Interestingly, cats rarely meow to communicate with each other, demonstrating their specialization in manipulating human attention. The sounds of their meows have evolved during domestication to effectively communicate with humans. Shorter, higher-pitched sounds, more pleasing to our auditory system, are thought to have evolved because young humans possess similarly high-pitched voices.

Cats have also become adept at manipulating humans through their purrs. When they want something, they purr loudly, demanding attention. Scientists have found that the purr of domestic cats includes a component similar to the sound of a human baby crying. Humans are naturally attuned to this sound, and cats have evolved to capitalize on our sensitivity to grab our attention and fulfill their desires.

Living with cats, one is frequently reminded that these independent creatures possess a talent for training their human companions. While cats are indeed trainable, often driven by their love for food, they tend to exert more influence over our behavior than we do over theirs. As the saying goes, “Dogs have owners, cats have staff.”

In conclusion, the evolutionary success of the African wildcat as the ancestor of our domestic companions is a testament to their adaptability and the favorable circumstances that led to their domestication. The few genetic changes during the domestication process have resulted in a species that has ingeniously carved a place in the hearts and homes of humans worldwide. From their friendly nature to their social behavior and various vocal cues, cats have mastered the art of manipulating humans. Perhaps it is through their captivating charm and unique abilities that they have become one of the most popular and beloved companion animals globally.

Jonathan Losos is William H. Danforth Distinguished University Professor at Washington University in St. Louis. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.