Evolution & the cat

Scientific American has a long piece reviewing the recent genetic insights into the origins and development of the most awesome pets of all:

It is by turns aloof and affectionate, serene and savage, endearing and exasperating. Despite its mercurial nature, however, the house cat is the most popular pet in the world. A third of American households have feline members, and more than 600 million cats live among humans worldwide. Yet as familiar as these creatures are, a complete understanding of their origins has proved elusive. Whereas other once wild animals were domesticated for their milk, meat, wool or servile labor, cats contribute virtually nothing in the way of sustenance or work to human endeavor. How, then, did they become commonplace fixtures in our homes?

Scholars long believed that the ancient Egyptians were the first to keep cats as pets, starting around 3,600 years ago. But genetic and archaeological discoveries made over the past five years have revised this scenario--and have generated fresh insights into both the ancestry of the house cat and how its relationship with humans evolved.

This part on the look of modern cats was surprising to me:

Although humans might have played some minor role in the development of the natural breeds in the Orient, concerted efforts to produce novel breeds did not begin until relatively recently. Even the Egyptians, who we know were breeding cats extensively, do not seem to have been selecting for visible traits, probably because distinctive variants had not yet arisen: in their paintings, both wildcats and house cats are depicted as having the same mackerel-tabby coat. Experts believe that most of the modern breeds were developed in the British Isles in the 19th century, based on the writings of English natural history artist Harrison Weir. And in 1871 the first proper fancy cat breeds--breeds created by humans to achieve a particular appearance--were displayed at a cat show held at the Crystal Palace in London (a Persian won, although the Siamese was a sensation).

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Of course I don't really know anything about it, but if you assume that dogs were domesticated for some useful purpose, it makes sense to think that cats, too, might have been domesticated for a useful purpose. It's not uncommon to find barn cats today that are barely pets, but which are kept around farms to help control rodent populations. Why wouldn't the Egyptians have done something similar?

On my Dad's farm are about a dozen cats, none tame enough to pet. He feeds them, and I suppose they kill rodents.

I agree re rodents. I once read in one semi-scholarly source that cats are quite effective. Even if ancient people understood nothing about rodents' role as disease vectors, rodents are still quite irritating.

By Eric Johnson (not verified) on 27 May 2009 #permalink

It's amazing how feral a typical housecat can become if not socialized as a kitten. For all I know they could have been bred not only for rodent reduction duties, but maybe just as a simple companion as well (much like dogs, but dog breeds tend to have more specific purposes)

I think I read somewhere a theory that the rodent-killing value of cats was not in getting rid of pests for their human hosts but in capturing them food to eat. If so that would certainly explain one of their more annoying habits. It's hard to imagine though how that behavior might have been encouraged - what's the reward - a warm place to sleep, perhaps?

In presuming to think about what a cat is doing when bringing some badly beaten up, but still living prey and demonstrate how to knock it around some more. Cats could be doing this for practice hunting by the family of kittens. If no kittens are around, then they still bring it back to the family - yours

By natural cynic (not verified) on 27 May 2009 #permalink

As one who was raised on a farm, I can certainly attest to the ability of cats to mostly contain the population of rodents. Occasionally, an infestation will occur that the cats are unable to handle, but under 'normal' conditions they can make a considerable difference.

As others have said, many of these were essentially undomesticated other than coming around for the daily bowl of milk.

By Canadian Curmudgeon (not verified) on 28 May 2009 #permalink

A marina I know have cats and I haven't seen a single rat in 30 years. The cats look really mean. Many have scars and are not friendly, but the marina administration supplies food and veterinarian attention to the cats. Once, many years ago, they tried to get rid of the cats, and the consequence was an infestation of rodents.

Interesting article, but I get very tired of the old saw that cats are "solitary hunters that defend their home ranges fiercely from other cats of the same sex." Tell that to the colonies of cats living in the Coliseum and other Roman ruins, or the barn-cat colonies I've observed around my rural community. Tell that to the various cats I've owned over 40 years, all of whom exhibit prey-stealing and prey-hiding behaviors that clearly bespeak a species that is NOT solitary when it comes to hunting. When I was young, we had a tom who roamed and hunted cooperatively with a neighbor's neutered male cat, both of them full adults (i.e., this was not a juvenile behavior). They also cooperatively FOUGHT an extremely aggressive tom who lived at the end of the block. My cats are so sociable they'll hunker with possums just as they will with neighboring cats. Solitary my foot! ;D

By raincrow@aceweb.com (not verified) on 29 May 2009 #permalink