Where Did Cats Come From?

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.

Further info:
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

Back to blogging–yay!

Good Health

People’s varying reactions to Covid-19 and the quarantine amaze me. Not always in a good way, though I still laugh when I recall Kellyanne Conway’s criticism of the WHO, “This is Covid-19, not Covid-1, folks. You would think that people charged with the World Health Organization facts and figures would be on top of that.” She followed up that jaw-dropping misunderstanding with “People should know the facts.” Spokespeople too.

I hope you and your family have stayed well and am happy to report good news on that front for my family, so far. Even though New Jersey is a peanut of a state, we have seen more Covid deaths than our big brothers, Texas and California.. The county where I live has suffered more Covid deaths than 16 entire states.  

Bad Politics

Starting in April, I took a break from 4-day-a-week website posting. I I felt oddly speechless in the face of the pandemic, the politics, the gun-toting protestors in state capitals, hurricanes battering the South, the West ablaze.

I was heartsick in the aftermath of our massive social upheavals. Now that political correctness isn’t politically correct any more, we find how much ugly stuff it hid. Yes, it occasionally strayed into eye-roll territory, but it reinforced norms about what is acceptable in a modern society made up of many threads and strands. It expressed how we should treat each other. Maybe it kept the lid on, a bit. And since behavior lags attitudes, it may have helped at least a few people break the habit of reflexive hostility and censorious opinion.

Now, of course, Americans feel empowered to give their malicious attitudes and beliefs free rein. I wish I didn’t know this dangerous river of ignorance and prejudice still flows through our country. I would have preferred to continue deluding myself that we are moving beyond the corrosive views of the past. Maybe this time, more people of good will are paying attention.

A Brighter Note

While not blogging, I wasn’t doing nothing. I read a lot (reviews of the best stuff coming soon). I watched some under-the-radar films worth catching (ditto). I also escaped today’s woes by delving into the past, working on a family history. I finished and sent off a short story. I made a batch of birthday cards.

I sought advice from three experts on various aspects of my novel and took it. Then I read the whole thing through quickly, not as I usually do, interrogating every word, sentence, and paragraph. Here I’m reminded of the woman who bragged in an online advice-to-authors forum that “by the time I send my novel to the publisher I have read it through three whole times!” Three? Thirty-three is more like it. And twice out loud.

A last flash. In early March two Siamese kittens scrambled into our lives. Will and Charles. Kittenhood has been an entertaining way to spend the lockdown. We vacillate between “What was that crash?” and “It’s too quiet.” The picture? Sometimes, if you need a kleenex, you just have to get it yourself.

Closed Doors photo: falco for Pixabay

Busy Day

For the two new members of our family. “First we tore apart this feather thing, then we went to the vet.” Hard to get a clear picture. I tell them to stand still, but . . .


Kedi, cat, IstanbulWorried about the increasingly autocratic government of Turkey? Erdogan’s round-up of dissidents? His relations with Syria? You can forget all that watching this documentary (trailer) by Turkish filmmaker Ceyda Torun and cinematographer Charlie Wuppermann, about Istanbul’s Big Romance with—cats! (What did you think “Kedi” means?)

At an hour twenty-minutes, the film is somewhat longer than it might be, but as a vacation from the news cycle, perhaps not long enough. The residents of Istanbul don’t “own” most of the cats that roam their streets and markets, that nest in quiet places and makeshift hideaways. But they more than tolerate them, they celebrate them. And the cats, meanwhile, act like “slumming royals,” says Joe Leydon in Variety. You can see the cast here.

A number of the featured felines rule the neighborhoods where they live, defending their turf against interlopers and providing benefits to the humans. “They absorb my negative energy,” one man says. A waterside restaurant owner who’d had a problem with “mice” (I fear this was a euphemism) celebrated the day “this lion took up residence.” She takes care of the “mice,” to the comfort of the diners, I’m sure. My particular favorite was the cat who lives at a deli. She never goes inside, but paws at the window—rather insistently, it should be noted—when she wants one of the countermen to make her a snack.

The filmmakers identified a number of the city’s human residents whose mission seems to be to keep these felines in food. One pair of women cooks twenty pounds of chicken a day for them. (!) “All of us have tabs with all the vets,” says a bakery owner, and we see a man take an injured kitten to the vet in a taxi..

In short, the film is charming. It talks about how cats are different than dogs. And it shows how caring for the cats has been helpful to people in many ways. Suitable for all ages, and especially for those who have—or wish they had—been to Istanbul and now are reluctant to go because of paragraph one above. As Leydon says, it’s “splendidly graceful and quietly magical.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 97%; audiences: 87%.

Related Reading

Istanbul isn’t the only city with wonderful cats. Felines of New York –featuring indoor cats, it must be said—gives them deadpan quotes: “I’m not entirely familiar with the Internet thing. Like, I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never watched it or smelled it or whatever you do to the Internet. I’ve heard it’s full of cats, though. Is that true?” LOL! (affiliate link below).