The Evolution of Cats:  4.  The First Cat

Last time, Silvester the African wildcat showed how our own housecat would live out in the wild . . . as long as the habitat was a place like the Kalahari plain in southern Africa.

Fluffy’s style would have to change if it lived in a swampy jungle or high up in the Andes.

Yes, there are small cats in the Andes. Andean mountain cats are rare and hard to study. (Sunquist and Sunquist)

Felids (members of the cat family Felidae) are up to the challenge. These very adaptable animals are found all over the world today.

They are also in the geologic record. For tens of millions of years cats have always:

  • Competed with each other in all these places
  • Hunted prey that was evolving rapidly and in diverse ways
  • Had sex and raised kittens
  • Coped as best they could with other community predators that ranged from prehistoric giant beardogs; through the very cat-like ancient nimravids and barbourofelids that we will meet next time; to today’s Homo sapiens.

That’s a lot of work. No wonder modern cats tend to be a little irritable!

This jaguar looks a little like the Joker!

Those interactions with the environment and with other living members of their communities have, of course, influenced the evolution of cats in many ways.

We need this broader post now to move beyond Silvester and take a very general look at how the first cats evolved.

Then, next time, we can meet some of them, starting with the sabertooths.

Now, ladies and gentleman, set aside some time for reading – this post does cover a central idea in my book, that the evolution of cats was an epic  – and step this way into the time machine . . .

(Mind the gorgon, the T. rex, and the angry quoll.)

Humble beginnings

Many of the complex feline features that we admire today actually evolved to meet a vital but simple need in the past.

Sometimes this need arose a very long time ago.

Believe it or not, a cat’s beautiful coat; its claws, whiskers, and teeth; and the glands it uses to advertise for a mate and to mark its territory all come from integument (Chuong and Harberger) – that is, from skin.

Cats are still recuperating from the evolutionary effort.

Integument first evolved in some of the oldest ancestors of mammals and reptiles.

Those former fish needed the outer covering to protect themselves from dehydration, now that they were spending more and more time out of the water.  (Alibardi)

Integument of various shapes and qualities also helped them slither around or pull themselves along as they colonized the land.  (Alibardi)

Today, molecular biologists say that things like claws and teeth come from the integument’s epithelial stem cells.

These cells can be organized in lots of different ways.  (Chuong and Harberger)

Exactly how this works isn’t well understood yet, but it has indeed led to the diversity of today’s animals. (Chuong and Harberger)

The development of integument is one of the points where the story of cat evolution (and much else) really begins.

We need to go back 350 million years for it (Benton and others) – a much longer span of time than the 65 million years or so that have passed since the K/T extinction of nonavian dinosaurs and some other forms of Cretaceous life.

A modern avian dinosaur poses with data from the geological record. Feathers developed from integument, too. (Chuong and Harberger)

We would have needed a time machine anyway.  Cats are mammals, after all, and the Linnean order Mammalia is very old.

You might have heard that the Age of Mammals began when nonavian dinosaurs went away.

Actually, that’s just the Cenozoic – sixty-five million years of what scientists who take the really long view call “recent life.”

Mammal beginnings are nowhere near as recent as that.

Mammals and dinosaurs

Two-thirds of the real Age of Mammals was already over (Kielan-Jaworowska) when a killer bolide suddenly appeared in Cretaceous skies.
Continue reading  The Evolution of Cats:  4.  The First Cat

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The Evolution of Cats: 3.  Fluffy’s African Granddaddy

As we saw last time, laypeople have a lot of questions about Fluffy the housecat and where this quirky little animal and its relatives fit into our shared Universe.

There are still many blanks in the scientific puzzle that’s the evolution of cats, but specialists in everything from paleontology to genetics are fitting quite a few of the pieces together.

Blog posts here and eventually the book Where Cats Come From describe what I understand those experts to be saying about their work.

The easiest way to begin is by looking at Fluffy.  Housecats are built and act the same as the big cats, and they’re a lot more convenient to use as models.  (Turner and Antón)

However, this approach has its limits because ten thousand years of domestication (Clutton-Brock; Driscoll and others; O’Brien and others) and a century and a half of the cat fancy have reshaped the housecat right down to its genes.

We need to get a little more wild if we’re going to look at the evolution of all cats, including the big ones.

Let’s leave Fluffy in the house for now and visit its nearest ancestor, the African wildcat. (Driscoll and others; O’Brien and others)

Introducing Silvester

There are a lot more small cat species out there than most of us realize, but many people in Europe, Africa, and the Middle/Near East probably have heard of the group called wildcats.
These aren’t bobcats or other medium-sized or small cats.  As you can see up above, wildcats actually look a lot like housecats.

That resemblance is not a coincidence.

Continue reading The Evolution of Cats: 3.  Fluffy’s African Granddaddy