Unfortunately for paleontologists who want to study the fossilized ancestors of the world’s billion cats, such remnants are rare. Cats have been around for an estimated 30 million years, but only sixty species appear in the fossil record. Where did that cuddly creature who shreds your sofa and leaves hairs all over your black trousers come from? An article by Jonathan B. Losos in Natural History gives the story.
Millions of years ago, the feline family tree had two main branches. One branch, the saber-toothed cats that lived in many places worldwide, we know only through fossils. The other branch—the conical toothed cats (huh?)—gave rise to all forty-two current species. There are the Big Cats (lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars, puma, and cheetahs) and the little cats—bobcats, ocelots, Fluffy, and many more.
Big Cats eat big prey; little cats eat mice and bugs and small cans of chicken pâté. (My cats like Italian food.) Domestic cats are much more similar in anatomy, behavior, and ecology to other small cat species than they are to Big Cats. But family relationships aren’t solely a matter of size. There are seven species in the Big Cat family, including the medium-sized cloud leopard. Two members of the little-cat family are big—the mountain lion and the cheetah.
Genetic analysis is answering some questions about cat families’ common ancestors. Your kitty, sleeping on the clean laundry, is descended from the African wildcat. As natural selection has done its work, the intestines of domestic cats became longer (to handle a more varied diet) and their brains smaller (my cats, William and Charles, disagree with the science on this point, despite evidence the decline is in the areas related to aggression, fear, and instant reactivity, which a domestic cat needs less of, apparently).
Losos concludes that “From those humble origins somewhere between Egypt and Turkey, the cat of the Pharoahs has been on a great evolutionary ride, becoming one of the most successful carnivores that ever existed.”
In my award-winning short story “Burning Bright,” a pair of ne’er-do-wells wants to acquire a tiger. I wrote it in a fury that, at that time, four U.S. states still allowed private persons to own big cats without so much as a license. In fact, said the World Wildlife Fund, more tigers were living in U.S. backyards than in the wild. I’m happy to report that the federal Big Cat Public Safety Act finally was enacted late last year making the trade illegal. Current owners are grandfathered in, but had to register their ownership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by last Sunday. Charles and William (below) say they are not policy wonks, but they approve.
The Cat’s Meow: How Cats Evolved from the Savanna to Your Sofa by Jonathan B. Losos
Big Cat Rescue – preserving and protecting exotic wildcat species
Panthera – a conservation organization for big cats and their habitats