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.
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!
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.)
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.
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.
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