The Evolution of Cats:  2. Where Do Cats Come From? An introduction.

The world of felines is beautiful, varied, sometimes dangerous, and always mysterious.  Many of us are attracted to this world and we wonder how cats evolved.

Here are a few common questions and brief answers:

Q:  Are humans responsible for turning other cats into housecats?  

A:  No.  Registered cat breeds aren’t the same things as species.  And domestication has only happened to one modern cat species: Felis s. catus, the housecat. In the past, people did domesticate some individuals of other species, like the cheetah and the jungle cat, but that didn’t catch on the way it has with Fluffy.

Q:  Even if we had nothing to do with it, how are cats such as, say, a jaguar and a Siamese related and why are they so different?  

A:  They’re related in lots of ways.  The exact answers here depend on how far back you want to go.  One reason they are different is that the cat family line that led to the jaguar is older than the line that led to Fluffy.  (O’Brien and Johnson)  Experts are still working out these and other details with molecular studies as well as fossils

Q:  Where does the sabertoothed tiger fit in?  

A:  There never was such a critter. Seriously.  See van den Hoek Ostende and others, referenced at the end of this post. All modern cats are cousins of Smilodon and the other true sabertoothed cats, but they are not direct descendants of the sabertooths.  (Antón; Werdelin and others)

These answers only skim the surface, of course, but that’s how it is with most quick looks at where cats come from.  

It’s hard to find a fairly complete yet simple story about what scientists know of the evolution of cats.  That is why I am writing a book about it, as well as practicing with these blog posts.

I have read research papers and books, like those listed below, in a variety of related fields and have learned that cat evolution is a hot topic.  

No wonder knowledgeable discussions about it can get very sciencey very quickly!

Wayne and others (again, see source list at end of this post) are right when they say that scientists have a “. . . special fascination . . . for cultural, aesthetic, and scientific aspects  of the cat family.”

There’s a practical aspect as well.  Cat genetic studies have “applications ranging from disease gene discovery . . . to species conservation.”  (O’Brien and others)

That’s nice.

But the rest of us cat lovers don’t commune with Nature at such rarefied heights.  

We just enjoy Fluffy and watch documentaries or go on safaris and to zoos to see some big cats.  

Just like the scientists, we wonder how cats evolved, but we would like to hear more about it in plain English.

The problem is, evolution is a complicated topic.  So are cats.
So is environmental history over geologic time – Earth hasn’t always been like it is today.  

The scientific method is pretty tough, too.  As J. A. Van Couvering puts it,  

[A] geologist writes like a person overcoming very grave reservations.  This is because no geologist can operate as an earth historian without continuously doubting such opinions – regardless of the accuracy of the observations upon which they are based.

Put all this together and . . . well!

And yet . . . holding a purring housecat is one of the simplest and finest things in the world.  It’s a little like holding Nature’s heart next to yours.  

So we laypeople do ask about this little animal and where it and all of its relatives fit into our shared Universe.

I’m going to write down all that I have learned about answers to my own questions, and perhaps you will find that helpful, too.  Also be sure to check out the references at the bottom of each post; these may help you even more.

The next post in this series will take a detailed look at the housecat’s nearest ancestor, African wildcats. (Driscoll and others; O’Brien and others)

African wildcats are a lot like Fluffy, not surprisingly.

I hope you will enjoy this series on cat evolution as much as I am enjoying writing it!


Feature image:  Rama:  Hoplophoneus primevus.   Edited by Robin H.  Happy Halloween!  CC BY-SA 2.0.

Sonelle:  African Wild Cat at the Johannesburg Zoo, South Africa. Originally uploaded to English Wikipedia (21:57, 25 January 2005) {{GFDL}}

AZA Lion Species Survival Plan (2012).  Lion Care Manual.  Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Silver Spring, Maryland, p. 143.

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.  

Antón, M.  2013.  Sabertooth.  Bloomington:Indiana University Press.

Benton, M. J.; Donoghue, P. C. J.; Asher, R. J.; Friedman, M.; Near, T. J.; and Vinther, J.  2015.  Constraints on the timescale of animal evolutionary history.  Palaeontologia Electronica, 18.1.1FC  1-106. 

Burgess, S. D.; Bowring, S.; and Shen, S.  2014.  High-precision timeline for Earth’s most severe extinction.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  111(9):3316-3321.

Clutton-Brock, J.  1989.  Competitors, companions, status symbols, or pests:  a review of human associations with other carnivores, in Carnivore Behavior, Ecology, and Evolution, ed. Gittleman, J. L., 2:375-392.  Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Driscoll, C. A.; Menotti-Raymond, M.; Roca, A. I.; Hupe, K.; Johnson, W. E.; Geffen, E.; Harley, E. H.; Delibes, M.; Pontier, D.; Kitchener, A. C.; Yamaguchi, N.; O’Brien, S. J.; and Macdonald, D. W.  2007.  The Near Eastern origin of cat domestication.  Science.  317:519-522.

Francis, J. E., Marenssi, S., Levy, R., Hambrey, M., Thorn, V. T., Mohr, B., Brinkhuis, H., Warnaar, J., Zachos, J., Bohaty, S., and DeConto, R.  2009.  From Greenhouse to Icehouse: The Eocene/Oligocene in Antarctica, in Developments in Earth  and Environmental Sciences, ed. Florindo, F. and Siegert, M., 311-372.

Gradstein, F. M.; Ogg, J. G.; and Hilgen, F. G.  2012.  On the geologic time scale.  Newsletters on Stratigraphy.  45(2):171-188.

Kitchener, A. C., Van Valkenburgh, B., and Yamaguchi, N.  2010.  Felid form and function, in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, ed. D. W. Macdonald and A. J. Loveridge, 83-106.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press.

​Martin, L. D.  1980.  Paper 287:  Functional Morphology and the Evolution of Cats.  Transactions of the Nebraska Academy of Sciences and Affiliated Societies. VIII:141-154.

O’Brien, S. J. and Johnson, W. E.  2007.  The evolution of cats.  Scientific American.  297 (1):68-75.

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

Turner, A., and Antón, M.  1997.  The Big Cats and Their Fossil Relatives:  An Illustrated Guide to Their Evolution and Natural History.  New York:  Columbia University Press. 

Van Couvering, J. A.  1984.  Introduction to Catastrophes and Earth History:  The New Uniformitarianism, ed. Berggren, W.A. and Van Couvering, J.A.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press.  

van den Hoek Ostende, L., Morlo, M., and Nagel, D.  2006.  Fossils explained (52):  Majestic killers:  the sabretoothed cats.  Geology Today.  22(4):150-157.

Wayne, R. K., Benveniste, R. E.,  Janczewski, D. N., and O’Brien, S. J.  1989.  Molecular and Biochemical Evolution of the Carnivora, in Carnivore Behavior, Ecology, and Evolution, ed. Gittleman, J. L., 1:465-494.  Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Werdelin, L.; Yamaguchi, N.; Johnson, W. E.; and O’Brien, S. J..  2010.   Phylogeny and evolution of cats (Felidae), in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids,  ed. D. W. Macdonald and A. J. Loveridge, 59-82.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press.