Should you suppose your pet cat has a wild aspect, you’re not fallacious. Based on evolutionary biologist Jonathan B. Losos, “housecats aren’t that totally different from mountain lions.” In his newest e-book, “The Cat’s Meow: How Cats Developed from the Savanna to Your Couch,” Losos guides readers by the evolutionary historical past of felines, uncovering the ancestral roots of the fashionable housecat.
To not fear: This isn’t one other cute cat e-book. As a substitute, Losos, a professor at Washington College in St. Louis whose specialty is learning a big household of tree-living lizards often called anoles, faucets deeply into a variety of feline analysis, from digital monitoring of nighttime exercise to DNA testing, to point out how a lot we’ve realized up to now about cats — and the way a lot continues to be left to find.
BOOK REVIEW — “The Cat’s Meow: How Cats Developed from the Savanna to Your Couch,” by Jonathan B. Losos (Viking, 400 pages).
The earliest cats lived about 30 million years in the past — the species we now name Proailurus lemanensis — however about 10 million years later, evolution “kicked into gear,” Losos writes, when felines diverged into two teams: the saber-toothed cats, which ultimately turned extinct, and the conical-toothed group, which developed into at the moment’s Felis catus. Genetically linked to the North African wildcat Felis silvestris lybica, the primary home cats appeared about 10,000 years in the past. Most researchers consider that residing close to people in early agrarian communities, the place cats presumably shared meals and helped management rodents — a mutually useful association — in all probability led to the domestication of at the moment’s housecats.
Whereas there’s a substantial fossil document for the saber-tooth line, the conical-toothed group is way more durable to hint again. Right this moment, there are as much as 42 species of untamed felines derived from the conical department – together with ocelots, bobcats, lions, and cheetahs. “Huge cats are the celebrities of the feline world,” Losos writes, however most species are concerning the measurement of a housecat and look fairly related. “Fast take a look at: what number of cat species are you able to consider that weigh lower than fifty kilos?” he challenges the reader. “Clearly, the little-cat aspect of the feline household wants a greater PR agent.”
The extraordinary range of at the moment’s cat breeds “occurred in many years reasonably than millennia,” Losos notes. And whereas selective breeding has led to not less than 73 breeds of home cats — hairless, floppy eared, Siamese, and so forth — most are little modified from their wild ancestors. “Look beneath the paint job — the variation in hair size, shade, and texture — and most home cats are practically indistinguishable from wildcats,” he writes. “The variations in anatomy, physiology, and conduct that distinguish most domesticated species from their ancestors don’t exist in cats.”
Losos goes on to spend a very good chunk of the e-book explaining the similarities and variations between housecats and their wild ancestors. “Whereas canines have diverged from wolves in lots of genes, home cats and wildcats differ in solely a handful,” Losos writes. “Cats really are scarcely domesticated.”
The extraordinary range of at the moment’s cat breeds “occurred in many years reasonably than millennia,” Losos notes.
In 2014, geneticists at Washington College in St. Louis sequenced a complete genome (of about 20,000 genes, much like people) of a cat named Cinnamon. Solely 13 genes “confirmed proof of getting been modified by pure choice through the domestication course of,” he writes. In a wolves-to-dogs comparability, in the meantime, there have been nearly 3 times as many. In actual fact, Losos prefers the time period “semidomesticated,” for the reason that cat’s evolutionary historical past is so totally different from the canine and different domesticated species.
The small fraction of altered genes, plus the excessive similarity in anatomy and conduct between housecats and wildcats, demonstrates how related housecats are to their ancestors — though they’re totally different species, Losos writes. One other telltale signal of how shut the 2 are: the pace with which a domesticated cat will lose its socialization expertise and rapidly adapt to residing within the wild.
That stated, at the moment’s housecats exhibit many behaviors that appear to be linked to their relationship with people. In actual fact, the very factor that distinguishes them from their ancestors is that they get together with us. Their purring, meowing, kneading, and searching habits (they don’t hunt in teams, as an illustration) have all diverged from their African forebears.
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Losos is a unusual and interesting author. His e-book covers nearly all the things cat-related — from analysis into feral cat populations and the way a lot mileage cats cowl of their nighttime wanderings, which will be tracked by particular GPS collars, to breeding preferences and why a cat’s tail, when held up straight, is a pleasant signal (it’s a sign to strangers from an extended distance).
We study that the neighborhood of Nachlaot in central Jerusalem “boasts the best focus of cats ever recorded wherever on the planet,” in keeping with Losos — equal to six,300 per sq. mile — and is the positioning of essential analysis into the traits of each domesticated and non-domesticated cats.
Relating to pure choice, Losos reveals that male lions who take management of a brand new pleasure typically kill the newborns of feminine lionesses fathered by different males. It’s an adaptation that makes evolutionary sense, he maintains, because the lionesses will extra rapidly bear cubs fathered by the brand new males, furthering their genes. Male housecats, however, don’t work collectively in lion-like coalitions; they’re solitary and have a tendency to maneuver from one feminine to the following, racking up as many sexual companions as doable. (Although they’ve been identified to sometimes exhibit infanticide.)
Losos himself owns three cats, and infrequently attracts on his private observations to make clear the nuances of housecat conduct, such because the frequency of cat preventing. “In a single survey,” he notes, “45 p.c of respondents who stay in multicat households reported preventing amongst their cats not less than as soon as a month.”
“Whereas canines have diverged from wolves in lots of genes, home cats and wildcats differ in solely a handful,” Losos writes.
Alongside the way in which, he visits some debates that he prefers to not wade into at size, such because the ethics of breeding, although he says there’s one observe about which “there ought to be no debate: declawing and related procedures are mutilation and are morally indefensible.”
Losos regularly mentions the shortcomings of present feline analysis. How did purring evolve, for instance, and why do kittens knead? “From subjects as disparate as what’s happening of their heads, what affect they’ve on North American wildlife populations, and the place precisely they had been domesticated, there’s loads left for us study,” he concludes.
However it stays troublesome to find out which traits are distinctive to housecats, since their evolution has been sophisticated by interbreeding: “Wildcats the world over seem like interbreeding willy-nilly with home cats,” he writes.
At the same time as many different wild cat species develop into more and more endangered, Losos contends that there’s “little question” that at the moment’s home cats — presently some 600 million — will proceed to thrive. Simply as the primary cat species, 30 million years in the past, spawned cheetahs, lions, and extra, “time will inform whether or not Felis catus spawns an equally wealthy evolutionary lineage,” Losos writes. “I wouldn’t wager in opposition to it.”
Hope Reese is a journalist in Budapest, Hungary. Her writing has appeared in The New York Instances, The Atlantic, Vox, and different publications.