Category Archives: The First Cat

 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


The Age of Supereruptions: Climate Effects

Note:  This is a volcano post, but we need to mention a few other interesting things first.  And everything is better with a cat in it.

Human beings didn’t invent climate change; it’s built into the plane.

We’re actually survivors of some of the most dramatic natural changes ever: the ice ages.

Earth started having glacial/interglacial cycles 2.6 million years ago, right around the time that our ancestors first realized that stones can be made into useful tools.  (Agustí and Antón; Coolidge and Wynn)

Since then, people have seen at least 20 ice ages come and go.  For the last million years, the 100,000-year cycle has been quite regular. (Petit and others; Smithsonian)

Our progress through ice ages and the intervening warm interglacial periods—like the one we’re in now—can be measured by the number of controlled barriers we have erected between us and the unpredictability of the great outdoors.

Not all the barriers have been successful.

It’s a rough world out there.  And even though volcanoes are the ultimate source of our atmosphere (Schmidt and Robock), they’re out to get us, too.

The deadliest eruption in history—at Indonesia’s Tambora in 1815—may have directly and indirectly killed over 100,000 people.  (Oppenheimer, 2011)

The second most extreme supereruption known (Mason and others; Self) happened at another Indonesian volcano called Toba roughly 73,000 years ago, during the middle Stone Age.  (Oppenheimer, 2011)  It may have almost  wiped out the human race by triggering a “volcanic winter.”  (Self)

Nonetheless, despite such formidable natural hassles, the definitive history of humanity, whenever it gets written, may ultimately reveal that we were our own worst enemies.

Continue reading The Age of Supereruptions: Climate Effects

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

A more effective writing focus

After posting that Chapter Four draft here, I went back through Mauricio Antón’s Sabertooth. This time, I realized that he had written the sort of book about ancient cats that I want to write (although I am focusing on all cats): a very informative one that makes these beautiful animals come alive and shows how they lived and died during ancient terrestrial epochs that were sometimes quite tumultuous. Continue reading A more effective writing focus

“The First Cat” – Chapter Four Draft Excerpt


One of the biggest questions about cat evolution is why the earliest true cats were built very much like their most advanced representatives. That beautiful shape appears in the fossil record right from the start.

Cat-loving laypeople are okay with this mystery. We know that shape is part of a cat’s essence, and you can no more pin that down than you can a drop of water. Like mountain streams cutting through granite, cats go where they will, when they will, no matter how the rest of the world does things.

So, instead of wondering about the why of it, let’s instead look at what experts are learning about the first stages in the evolution of cats. Continue reading “The First Cat” – Chapter Four Draft Excerpt