“Where Cats Come From”: Update August 31, 2016

This Sunday, there will be a Sunday Morning Volcano post:  the last of the three-part series about the Great Ignimbrite Flareup.  It looks at the Eocene/Oligocene climate transition and possible climate effects of Eocene supereruptions.

This series is helping me practice writing for my book, Where Cats Come From.  I plan to follow up with at least one Feline Friday post about the evolution of cats.

I have been researching this book for two years, thinking it would be easy . . . sort of an extended blog post.  But no.  There is too much to cover.

Here are just a few examples of what I mean:

  • Domestication and the complex relationship between people and cats – it’s likely to be the second half of the book and will include a description and brief history of each cat breed registered with the major cat fancy organizations, as well as moggies.  (I have a fairly good content-writing background for that.)
  • The first half, about cat evolution, has to mention interesting points like the fact that the dog-and-cat division among carnivorans is way older than actual dogs and cats.  It may go back to something in mammal evolution during the Age of Dinosaurs or it might have developed in the first 10 million years after the K/T extinction – a period that’s sometimes called the “Dark Age” of the last 65 million years because so little is known about mammal evolution then.
  • No one really knows how Felidae (the cat family) emerged, or  precisely where and when.  The basic cat shape developed very early in the Age of Mammals and hasn’t changed much.  This makes it difficult for researchers to identify cat fossils.  (Werdelin and others)
  • Climate change may have made a difference – some experts note that true cats appeared around the time that open grasslands developed.  (Agustí and Antón)
  • Many of the top minds on the planet are fascinated by cats and have learned enough about cat history, development, and ecology to make this story an interesting epic.  (Writing that epic is hard work.)
  • There were cat-like creatures long before true cats emerged.  These were the nimravines described here in the White River Chronofauna posts.  Nimravines also roamed Europe and Asia back in those days, and they eventually made their last stand in, I think, India.  There was also another, later cat-like group – the barbourofelines – that came somewhat later, around the time of the first saber-toothed cats.  Paleontologists once thought these beautiful but fearsome nimravids (nimravines plus barbourofelines) were the ancestors of modern cats; that has been disproven, but the experts are still trying to figure out whether these animals fit into the history of cat evolution, and if so, where they belong.
  • Until relatively recently, just about all cats and cat-like animals had saberteeth.  Just counting the cats, that’s over 20 million years’ worth of awesome dental hardware.  So why don’t cats have saberteeth today? No one knows.  (van den Hoek Ostende and others)
  • There is a huge gap in the geological record between the first true cats and today’s big and small cats (sabertoothed cats took another, equally mysterious evolutionary path).  Can those ghost lineages be filled in?  
  • Speaking of gaps, after the last White River nimravine died, North America had a cat gap for several million years.  Then an Old World cat, Pseudaelurus, showed up in the west.  Was that because, as Kohn and Fremd have pointed out, the tectonic situation there (a followthrough, I think, of the geological situation that had caused the Great Ignimbrite Flareup) was creating a landscape ideal for biodiversity?

There is a lot to cover in this book, and I am not a biologist or paleontologist.  I have had to learn a lot before I could even start on research for the book.

Now it is time to pause in my reading and to start writing, for two main reasons:

  • To organize my thoughts
  • To develop the right voice for this story

The three-part series on the Great Ignimbrite Flareup, while not very closely related to cats themselves, has helped tremendously.

It was easy to get into – volcanoes are a hobby of mine and they’re exciting to write about.  And it also offered a chance to come to grips for the first time with writing about the great climate changes that influenced the evolution of all mammals over the last 65 million years. This is the post that comes out on Sunday.

There is a link between life and its environment.  The two develop together, I suspect, and the evolution of life can’t be well understood without looking at its environment.  But the transition from the ancient Greenhouse Earth to today’s Icehouse Earth was, as we’ll see this Sunday, a huge event.

All of this is tricky for a new writer to tackle, but we shouldn’t shrink from a good story just because it’s very challenging.

And a lay story of cat evolution and domestication needs to be written.

The last couple of years have been a lot of work but also very enjoyable.  I am fortunate enough to live near two excellent universities for resources.  In their science libraries I have filled in my background on Cenozoic geological events and mammal paleobiology a little and explored what is going on today regarding cats and their evolution.

Along the way, I have written many drafts, none of them much good.  Then I came across Sabertooth, by Mauricio Antón.  Check it out, if cats interest you! (His blog is also very informative and contains many samples of his excellent paleoart.)

That’s actually the sort of popular science book I was trying to write, but he is more qualified and did it better.  So instead I just sat down and wrote – and continue to write – the book I want to about cats.

That’s working out well, though it’s not yet ready for public viewing.  I need a little more public practice on this blog.

By the way, this is the sort of challenge that it’s very tempting to avoid by going after “shiny things” on the Internet.  Seriously, I would never have gotten this far if I had Internet in my home per usual.  Instead, for the duration I am only using the university library connections, so I can better focus my attention and spend online time wisely.

Once I’m done with the book, I’ll get a full-time connection again.

Of course, when you get right down to it,  I’m a lay person and so cannot write the history of cats very accurately.  No human historian was there to record it, and science can only describe such things in terms of  probabilities, not fact.

Still, as G. K. Chesterton once said, we laypeople have to do the best we can with what the scientists uncover.  Where Cats Come From will be as accurate as my understanding of the present state of research can make it.

In the meantime, thank you for your interest.  Feel free to give feedback on these posts in comments.

I don’t know when this book will be published, but I hope you will enjoy it.

FRONT PAGE IMAGE:  Top:  Valdivian temperate rainforest.  Image by Albh. Location: Oncol park, Provincia de Valdivia, Chiles.  CC BY-SA 3.0.  Bottom:  A kod-kod, rainforest resident and one of the world’s smallest cats.  (Sunquist and Sunquist).  Image by Mauro Tammone.  Leopardus guigna in Anticura (Parque Nacional Puyehue, X Region, Chile).  CC BY 3.0.

SOURCES:

Agustí, J. and Antón, M. 2002. Mammoths, sabertooths, and hominids: 65 million years of mammalian evolution in Europe. New York and Chichester: Columbia University Press.

Fortelius, M., Eronen, J. T., Kaya, F., Tang, H., Raia, P., and Puolamäki, K.  2014.  Evolution of Neogene mammals in Eurasia: environmental forcing and biotic interactions.  Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences.  42:579–604.  doi:10.1146/annurev-earth-050212-124030.

Kohn, M. J., and Fremd, T. J. 2008. Miocene tectonics and climate forcing of biodiversity, western United States. Geology. 36(10):783–786. doi:10.1130/G24928A.1.

Sunquist, M. and Sunquist, F. 2002. Wild cats of the world. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

van den Hoek Ostende, L. W., Morlo, M., and Nagel, D.  2006.  Majestic killers: the sabre-toothed cats.  Geology Today.  22(4):150–157.  doi:10.1111/j.1365–2451.2006.00572x.

Werdelin, L., N. Yamaguchi, W. E. Johnson, and S. J. O’Brien. 2010. Phylogeny and evolution of cats (Felidae). In Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, ed. D. W. Macdonald and A. J. Loveridge, 5982. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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