Skip to comments.Scientists believe cats 'sort of domesticated themselves'
Posted on 06/29/2007 8:02:15 AM PDT by DogByte6RER
Scientists believe cats 'sort of domesticated themselves'
THE WASHINGTON POST
June 29, 2007
WASHINGTON Your hunch is correct. Your cat decided to live with you, not the other way around. The sad truth is, it may not be a final decision.
But don't take this feline diffidence personally. It runs in the family. And it goes back a long way about 12,000 years, actually.
Those are among the inescapable conclusions of a genetic study of the origins of the domestic cat, being published today in the journal Science.
The findings, drawn from the analysis of nearly a thousand cats around the world, suggest that the ancestors of today's tabbies, Persians and Siamese wandered into Near Eastern settlements at the dawn of agriculture. They were looking for food, not friendship.
They found what they were seeking in the form of rodents feeding on stored grain. They stayed for 12 millennia, although not without wandering off now and again to consort with their wild cousins.
The story is quite different from that of other domesticated animals cattle, sheep, goats, horses, and dogs, cats' main rivals for human affection. It may even provide some insight on the behavior of the animal that, if not man's best friend, is certainly his most inscrutable.
It is a story about one of the more important biological experiments ever undertaken, said Stephen O'Brien, a molecular geneticist at the National Cancer Institute's laboratory in Frederick, Md., and one of the supervisors of the project.
We think what happened is that cats sort of domesticated themselves, said Carlos Driscoll, the University of Oxford graduate student who did the work, which required him, among other things, to befriend feral cats on the Mongolian steppes.
There are today 37 species in the family Felidae, ranging from lions through ocelots down to little Mittens. All domestic cats are descended from the species Felis sylvestris (cat of the woods), which goes by the common name wildcat.
The species is indigenous to Europe, the Middle East and East Asia. The New World, Japan and Oceania lack wildcats. Their closest counterpart in North America is the lynx.
There are five subspecies of wildcats and they look very much like many pet cats, particularly nonpedigree ones. The Scottish wildcat, for example, is indistinguishable from a barn cat with a mackerel tabby coat. These animals, however, are true wild species. They are not escaped pets that have become feral, or reverted to the wild.
Driscoll and his collaborators, who included Oxford zoologist David Macdonald, took blood samples and ear punch biopsies from all wildcat subspecies, and from fancy-breed cats, ordinary pet cats, and feral cats. They analyzed two different kinds of genetic fingerprints.
One was nuclear DNA, which carries nearly all of an animal's genes and reflects inheritance from both parents. The other was mitochondrial DNA, which exists outside the cell nucleus, carries only a few genes, and descends through the generations only from the mothers, never from fathers.
Both fingerprints showed that domesticated cats all around the world are most closely related to the wildcat subspecies (called lybica) that lives in the Near East.
One might think that people in each region would have domesticated their local wildcats. In that case, European pet cats today would genetically most closely resemble European wildcats and Chinese cats would be descended from East Asian wildcats. But that isn't the case.
Genetics can't answer the question, but history and archaeology can provide a good guess.
Large-scale grain agriculture began in the Near East's Fertile Crescent. With the storage of surplus grain came mice, which fed on it and contaminated it.
Settled farming communities with dense rodent populations were a new habitat. Wildcats came out of the woods and grasslands to exploit it. They may have lived close to man but not petting-close for centuries.
Eventually, though, natural selection favored individual animals whose genetic makeup by chance made them tolerant of human contact. Such behavior provided them with them with things a night indoors, the occasional bowl of milk that allowed them to out-compete their scaredy-cat relatives in town.
I like cats just fine...but I am more of a dog person.
WE know this already.
Cats are domesticated? Mine would disagree. From his point of view, I kind of domesticated myself.
Dogs have masters, cats have staff!
What hunch? My 2, soon to be 3, cats tell me this on a daily basis...I have no choice in the matter. Cats are little people in furry coats
Get a cat that acts like a dog. Ours will fetch.
My father’s cat sees the family as funny looking, if defective, cats.
He wonders and yells about why we don’t go hunt morsels with him.
He seriously doesn’t understand that we cannot fit through the thicket across the street as stealthily as he.
Cat..... the other white meat....
A burglar has entered your home. Your dog goes wild!!!!Disturbed by the dog’s barking, your cat takes a deep breath and goes back to sleep. I swear...cat’s have Ritalin etched into their DNA.
My 24 pound monster thinks I am here to serve her.
Her counterpart with my missus sees us as being here to save him from the floating invisible threat that chases him.
Like sheep or any other animals they have been domesticated by kindness.
How can they be returned to the wild?
I’m VERRRRRY allergic to cats and have had to pass on some very promissing relationships because of their presence.
When you register a “6” on a “0 - 5” scale, the doc’s won’t give you shots, and I’m not about to walk around all doped up, on account of a cat.
Cats are not domesticated, any more than people are. They choose to live with us for their own reasons - friendship, food, warmth, whatever. If they do not find what they are looking for, they leave. Dogs and other domesticated animals will not.
I have met some *big* cats (panther, leopard) that were friendly to humans. I have met some small feral cats that wanted to eat my head. *All* the species of cats are smart for their size and can and will decide what they want to do all on their own.
My Bengal and Orange Tabby both fetch a ball and drop it in your hand or at your feet.
True. My cat would like me to run up the backs of armchairs with him, and go out hunting lizards in company.
He goes to the edge of the woods and meows and looks back at me. So we go for walks. Then he darts up a tree and wants me to come up there with him.
I am not as domesticated as he thinks. In fact I am a bit feral still.
I guess it depends on the definition and context of ‘domesticate’.
My father’s cat isn’t truly ‘domesticated’, but he’s domesticated in as much as he likes his electric lights, running water, and climate control.
But he’s still a feral cat that decided that humans were to be his ‘clan.’
Weird, these furry critters.