Friday, April 13, 2018

Fun Friday Facts #138: Did Cats Domesticate Themselves?


You may not have realized this, but I like cats.


And they like me.

But how did we get so lucky as to be blessed with a world in which cats exist? Out of all the animals that we could have domesticated, how did we end up with God’s perfect killing machines shedding all over our sofas?



For some time, it was believed that cats were first domesticated in Egypt about 4,000 years ago – something about all those cat mummies. But in 2004, that theory was put to sleep when archeologists discovered the remains of a 9,500-year-old domesticated cat in a grave in Cyprus. While these cat remains weren’t exactly wearing a collar at the time of discovery, scientists deduced that the cat was domesticated because it was found alongside human remains. I like to think that they both died at the same time, of natural and painless causes.

In 2007, a study published in the journal Science found that domestic cats originated, not from North Africa, as previously thought, but from the Near East in a little region called the Fertile Crescent, aka, the cradle of human civilization. Early domestic cats may also have appeared in Central Asia. DNA from the European wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris), traditionally believed to be the ancestor of the domestic cat due to their similar appearance, was compared to DNA from several subspecies of F. s. silvestris, including the central Asian wildcat, F. s. ornata; the Near Eastern wildcat, F. s. lybica; the Chinese desert cat, F. s. bieti; and the Southern African wildcat, F. s. cafra.. The researchers found that the Near Eastern wildcat specimens, which came from the deserts of the UAE, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain, shared mitochondrial DNA with the domestic cat specimens, as well as other genetic similarities that point to the Near Eastern wildcat being the most likely ancestor of the domestic cat. The researchers think it’s likely that cat domestication is as old as human civilization itself – or at least 10,000 to 12,000 years.


F. s. gordoni, a subspecies of the Near Eastern wildcat.

So, how did we domesticate cats? Early farmers’ food stores attracted rodents, and scholars believe that those rodents attracted cats. Presumably, as time passed, those cats realized that humans could offer warmth, affection, and a greater variety of easier-to-obtain vittles -- thus, a beautiful friendship between two species of bloodthirsty killers was born.

Some argue, however, that we didn’t domesticate cats, so much as they domesticated themselves – we were just kind of doing our thing, and cats just kind of showed up and started benefiting from that. Some even argue that cats are not yet fully domesticated. They point to the fact that domestic cats often survive just fine in feral colonies, without human intervention, and that feral domestic cats continue to interbreed with European, Near Eastern, and other closely-related wildcats, to such an extent that this interbreeding is threatening some species. Even a domestic cat that has lived all of its life with humans could, at least in theory, strike out on its own and make a life for itself just by killing and eating things, although I think it totally depends on the cat, and also why would it do that when it can just get some other schmuck to feed it, I mean, come on, that’s what they do.

You may have noticed that, unlike some domesticated species, like dogs, cats all kind of look the same. Sure, some have long fur and some have short legs, and some are completely bald, and some have pushed-in faces. And, of course, domestic cats have all different kinds of markings – they come in tabby, marmalade, calico, tuxedo, black, white, gray, tortoiseshell, and any combination of rosettes, stripes, spots, and points. But, when compared to different breeds of dogs, different breeds of cats are all pretty similar – they’re all roughly the same size, they mostly have the same kind of tail (except when they don’t), the same kind of ears (except when they don’t), the same face (except when they don’t), the same air of casual disdain, and the same obsession with pointless murder.

When early humans domesticated most other animals, they, the humans, needed them, the animals, to do specific things that the animals weren’t otherwise inclined to do, like herd sheep, or kill rats, or bring back dead waterfowl from the middle of the lake, or look stupid. No one really needed cats to do anything, except kill mice and rats, and they were already doing that. Domestic cats probably became a lot more social through domestication; they’re not only much friendlier to people than they might otherwise be, but they also bond more readily with other domestic cats and even other domestic species, like dogs and goats. But they may very well have self-selected for that trait, so for many millennia, there was really no need for humans to selectively breed cats the way that we have other domestic animals. They've remained pretty much the same, while we’ve become more and more interested in opening their cat food cans and stealing their poop. If anything, they’ve domesticated us – with a little help from their old friend, Toxoplasmosis gondi.

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