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    Ancestors of the Cat

    Ancestors of the Cat

    The origins of the domestic cat date back about 60 million years to a forest-dwelling, short-legged, long-bodied mammal with a small head (and hence a small brain) called a miacid, one of the first mammalian carnivores. All carnivorous mammals (which definitely include cats) are said have descended from the miacid, which came into being after the dinosaurs became extinct and allowed new forms of mammals to evolve and flourish. The first of the miacid’s descendents to resemble a modern-day cat was called a Dinictis, a lynx-size animal with catlike incisor teeth. However, it was a weasel-like creature called the Proailurus, which came along some 30 million years ago, that could lay claim to the title of first true cat. This was the first known member of the family Felidae, which includes all the cats—big and small, living and extinct.

    Dinictis felina is an early catlike mammal found in North America more than 20 million years ago.

    By 20 million years ago, the Proailurus had evolved into the Pseudaelurus. According to paleontologists, the slender proportions and short legs of these animals suggested that they were agile climbers. Some time between 6 and 10 million years ago, Pseudaelurus had spread out and evolved into four branches, or subfamilies, of cats. The Machairodontinae branch produced saber-toothed cats, such as the Smilodon, which eventually became extinct. The subfamily Pantherinae produced all modern-day big cats (such as leopards, lions, and tigers). The subfamily Felinae came into being as well; all of today’s small cats, including the domestic cat, belong to this family. Standing aloof from the other cats, in a subfamily of its own, the Acinonychinae is the modern-day cheetah. (Some cats don’t play well with others.) Felinae or Acinoychinae may be the most recently evolved of the subfamilies, but the exact timing of all this evolution is still uncertain.

    Big cats, including lions, are in a different subfamily than domestic cats.

    All in the Family

    When talking cats and their ancestors, it's wise to begin with a brief explanation of the classification system used for ranking all animals and plants: taxonomy. Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus, often called the father of taxonomy, developed the system in the 1750s. The domestic cat, for example, falls into this classification:

    • Kingdom: Animalia
    • Phylum: Chordata
    • Class: Mammalia
    • Order: Carnivora
    • Family: Felidae
    • Genus: Felis
    • Species: Felis domesticus

    It was Carl Linnaeus who divided cats into big cats and small cats based on the ability to roar.

    Climbing Trees in South America

    Climbing Trees in South America

    There were no ancestors of cats in South America until the Isthmus of Panama formed to connect it to North America, and the animals crossed over. Today, South America is home to the ultimate tree-climbing wildcat known as the margay, which lives in the rain forests. The margay is able to walk down a tree trunk with the same grace as she ascended because she has flexible ankles in her hind legs, which allow her back feet to rotate up to 180 degrees.

    The Big Cats

    Large cats who roar (they have a specialized hyoid bone at the base of their tongues that gives them this ability) were once labeled by the genus Panthera (lions, tigers, leopards, snow leopards, clouded leopards, and jaguars are all part of this genus). Recently, the big cats have been split into a three different genera: Uncia (the snow leopard), Neofelis (two species of clouded leopards), and Panthera (all the rest). Whereas big cats are currently concentrated in specific geographic locations, their ancestors roamed across many parts of the world. Today's lions, for instance, are native to Africa, with a very small population in India, but their ancestors once inhabited Europe, southeastern and north central Asia, and North and Central America. Leopards, found only in certain regions of Africa and Asia these days, had ancestors who lived throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia and on the island of Java. Fossils of cheetahs have also been found in France.

    The Small Cats

    All small wild cats who purr and growl but don't roar fall were considered to be in the genus Felis. Recent research has split up the small cats into several genera. Scientists today think that there could have been anywhere between twenty-six and thirty-seven small wildcats in this group. Remains of the African wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica), which is considered the progenitor of the domestic cat, have been found as far north as Scotland, as far south as South Africa, and as far east as Mongolia.

    This small subspecies has a tan, striped (tabby) coat and is roughly the size of a modern domestic cat. Although scientists long believed that this cat stood at the top of the domestic cat's family tree, they were not able to establish this fact until the twentyfirst century.

    In 2000, research scientist Carlos A. Driscoll, then working at the US National Cancer Institute's Laboratory of Genomic Diversity, gathered DNA samples from 979 wildcats and domestic cats from Europe, the Middle East, southern Africa, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia. Because wildcats are very territorial and not nomadic, Driscoll wanted to find out if the genetic composition of these groups would vary according to their geographic location but remain stable within each group. He hypothesized that if the DNA of domestic cats more closely resembled that of one of the wildcat populations, then he would have evidence for where (if not when) feline domestication began.

    Scientists think that our pet cats were domesticated from the various subspecies of wildcat, Felis silvestris. A southern African wildcat is pictured.

    Leslie Lyons's research on cat genetics shows that the domestic cat evolved from wildcats somewhere in the Middle East.

    Driscoll's results, published in 2007, revealed five distinct lineages. Four of them corresponded directly with four of the known subspecies of wildcats and the specific places in which they lived: F. s. silvestris (European wildcat, Europe), F. s. bieti (Chinese mountain wildcat, China), F. s. ornata (Asiatic wildcat, Central Asia), and F. s. cafra (South African wildcat, southern Africa). The fifth group included not only the fifth known subspecies of wildcat, F. s. lybica (African wildcat), found in the Middle East, but also bore a genetic resemblance to hundreds of domestic cats who were sampled (both purebred and mixed-breed) from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan. Genetically, F. s. lybica wildcats sampled from Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia were virtually indistinguishable from the domestic cats. Driscoll and his colleagues thus concluded that the origins of domestic cats were from a single locale-the Middle East. Researchers believe that only one species of wildcat was domesticated because other species hunted larger game or their habitats did not coincide with the regions where people were farming.

    This hypothesis was confirmed by the work of geneticist Leslie Lyons and her team working at the Center for Companion Animal Health, School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California, Davis. (Dr. Lyons now works at the University of Missouri.) Lyons and her team had collected samples of cheek cells from more than 1,000 cats for their study. Lyons had done much of her research in Egypt but also collected information from Turkey and Lebanon. With the aid of the American military, the team did manage to get samples of cats from throughout Iraq, as well. She and her team concluded, as Driscoll had, that the domestic cat evolved from the African wildcat in the Middle East. Although the political situation in Pakistan made it difficult for Lyons to do research in the Indus Valley, she has studied cats throughout India and Southeast Asia and believes that although the cat breeds of Southeast Asia are very distinct, they probably did come from the west (that is, from the Middle East). She conjectures that they were isolated during periods in history when rulers such as Genghis Khan closed off routes of discovery and that they remained isolated until explorers such as Marco Polo started opening up trade routes to the New World. In isolation, distinctions evolved.

    Ancient Egyptians famously revered cats. They even mummified them so they would come with their owners to the afterlife..

    From The Cat Bible, Copyright by Sandy Robins, licensed through ContentOro, Inc and used by arrangement with I-5 Press

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