I’ve started a blog called “50 Facts About Cats” to help me focus and also to promote the books as each takes shape. Just posted the last of the first facts for each category: wild cats, big cats, sabertoothed cats, house cats, and fancy-cats.
So far, there are only five facts up, but I’m trying to do at least one fact a day.
The books, of course, will be in a series of 50 facts each, offered separately and in a bundle.
The fate of Robin Huntingdon
For now, I’m going to leave this Robin Huntingdon blog as it is, making occasional posts and book updates.
I’m thinking about making it a general platform for a variety of science writers in the future, if the cat writing goes well for me. Time will tell.
The origin of the name Robin Huntingdon
By the way, did you ever wonder about this (since my name is Barb Beier)?
It’s based on my favorite Douglas Fairbanks silent movie! Not science, but a creative fleshing out of the old Robin Hood legend.
Here’s Doug as Robin Hood (the former Earl of Huntingdon):
I found this lovely video per this source while researching why some animals, including cats, are born blind and deaf (a/k/a altricial), while others, including ducks, are able to move and do other life tasks at birth (a/k/a precocial).
Mama Cat is hardwired to treat her “children” as if they are helpless, so she keeps trying to get the ducklings into the chow line. My favorite moment is when she finally gives up and just stares at them perplexed – we’ve all been there for one reason or another, Kitty!
Fortunately, it all works out at the end. Good thing for the kittens that ducklings are light and you can get a little air through their feathers!
As far as I’m concerned, Life, the Universe, and Everything appeared just so this young lion could get that much satisfaction from a green rubber ball. You’re welcome, Leo.
We’re done here . . .
Wait. Why pass up such a fascinating topic?
It may take a PhD to cover every detail of where cats come from and where they might be going, but some of the most interesting highlights aren’t at all hard to understand.
Let’s check out ten common misconceptions about fossil cats and how they turned into the modern cat family Felidae.
To start off, most people think that . . .
10. Dogs and cats are unrelated.
Cats and dogs work hard to keep this misconception going, but they’re actually “kissing cousins.” Well, sort of.
Not much hard evidence of the carnivoran family tree has survived the last sixty-six million years of geologic activity, but paleontologists still comb through fossil beds, searching for the last common ancestor of dogs and cats.
There must have been a hungry little mammal – they were all little back then (Rose) – that either survived the K/T extinction or developed very soon afterwards, during the first epoch of the Age of Mammals – the Paleocene. (Benton and others, page 66; Fox and others; Nyakatura and Bininda-Emonds, 2012)
How do the boffins know that?
From cat and dog teeth, specifically, certain upper and lower cheek teeth that fit together like scissors blades.
They’re called carnassials, after the French word for “carnivorous.”
Carnassials are why Fluffy rarely takes food from your hand. The cat has to use its cheek teeth on food.
Its impressive fangs and incisors are specialized murder tools, as we’ll see in #6 later.
As you can see, cats and dogs aren’t the only ones with carnassials. All members of the biological order Carnivora have them. (Revell)
It’s always the same teeth, too – the last premolar on the upper jaw and the first molar on the lower jaw. (University of California Museum of Paleontology)
This means that all carnivorans inherited their carnassials from the same ancestor.
That’s the K/T-surviving and/or fast-evolving animal paleontologists would love to identify in the geologic record.
Now, the next misconception is something that every zoo visitor and safari adventurer takes for granted. Scientists once thought it was true, too.
9. Hyenas and the big cats are unrelated.
Not surprisingly, wildlife biologists used to classify hyenas as caniforms. (World Heritage Encyclopedia) That’s science-speak for “dog-like.”
Yes, and otters and seals, too. Not killer whales, though. (Heske)
Hyenas were moved out of the group when genetic testing showed that they are really feliforms, though it isn’t clear exactly how they fit in with the rest of the “cat-like” carnivorans. (Barycka)
Feliforms include families you don’t usually think of as related to cats until you see them all together. Here are modern representatives of the whole feliform group (Heske):
OK, the hyena still seems strange there, but molecular analyses don’t lie.
By the way, meerkatts are in the mongoose family. They are smart, but cheetahs are smarter.
Since paleontologists are still looking for the last common ancestor of dogs and cats, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that no one knows for sure when these two groups went their separate ways.
The oldest known caniform and feliform fossils go back to the Eocene – the second epoch of the Age of Mammals. However, molecular studies suggest that the big break may have happened long before then. (Benton and others; Nyakatura and Bininda-Emonds, 2012; University of Edinburgh)
The exact date hasn’t been pinned down yet. Some researchers think . . . Uh-oh. Let’s move on – something really horrible has just appeared in the tree branches over your head . . . act casual and don’t turn your back on it.
Ever wondered if different kinds of housecat – like a tabby and a Persian, or street cats and purebreds – are different species?
Biologists say that these animals all have the same formal last name (for species or subspecies) – catus.
So it’s all one group despite appearances or lifestyle.
The biologists then politely excuse themselves and get back to work, because the real challenge is telling housecats and wildcats apart, and they’re working under a wildcat conservation deadline.
What’s a wildcat?
Well, it’s not that beautiful animal at the top of this post. That is a housecat – a pedigreed Norwegian forest cat, in fact. It’s a catus.
Here’s a wildcat, photographed in a German national forest:
The resemblance between these two particular cats is eerie!
Fluffy the Housecat and Silvester the Wildcat don’t always look that much alike. Cat fanciers have worked hard to maintain a wildcat appearance in the Norwegian fancy-breed.
It’s quite an achievement. The breeders are limited to the human time scale, while European wildcats have had hundreds of thousands of years – since roughly the middle of the Pleistocene – to develop their look. (Yamaguchi and others, 2004)
Wildcats are formally known as Felis silvestris. (It’s usually abbrevated as F. s..)
So, even though the cats above are almost mirror images, they belong in different subgroups – catus and silvestris, respectively.
Still, Nordic “twins” aside, housecats and wildcats do have a lot in common.
Fluffy and Silvester deserve their own post in this series on cat evolution because:
Obviously, they’re closely related. But some of the best minds on the planet can’t agree whether domestic cats and wildcats are two different species (Felis catus and Felis silvestris) or just subgroups of the same one, i.e., F. s. catus and F. s. [wildcat subspecies name]. It’s just words to us, but the uncertainty can really mess up legal efforts to protect wildcats. (Macdonald and others)
Our own history is part of the story. Cats have associated with human beings for at least ten thousand years. (Vigne and others, 2012) During that time, we’ve carried Fluffy all over the world. And in the last century and a half, we have also dramatically changed its appearance through a system of artificial selection called the cat fancy.
Housecats and wildcats interbreed so much that it’s almost impossible to find “pure” wildcats in some parts of Europe. This prompts warnings that wildcats are at risk for genetic extinction. But doesn’t interbreeding show that catus and silvestris are the same species? And how can having kittens make the parents go extinct? The biologists are working on these and other questions.
Let’s start off with the cats closest to us – the few that are fancy-breeds as well as the many unpedigreed domestic cats that share our homes, yards, and streets.
Then we will get a little better acquainted with Silvester and see how some wildcats might have been domesticated.
After a brief outline of Fluffy’s history, we’ll check out the issue of genetic extinction – what it is and what it could mean for people – especially cat owners – as well as wildcats.
Feral cats, fancy breeds, and housecats
You aren’t imagining things – there really are a lot of cats out there, 600 million of them associated with households and another 600 million unowned, roaming and reproducing freely (Driscoll and others, 2011), i.e., feral cats. (Robertson)
“Feral” does mean “wild,” but these aren’t wildcats. Wildcats are, well, wild – feral cats were once domestic or else have very close relatives that are domesticated.
Feral cats exist wherever people live or have lived. It’s a worldwide problem, and one that we humans have caused. (Robertson)
But in this post they are only relevant to the wildcat conservation issue, so we’ll talk about feral cats later.
What about the hundreds of millions of owned cats? Who really owns whom?
In other words, are housecats really domesticated?
It’s enormous fun to look at cat evolution, because you get to look at cats. Even people who don’t like pet cats are impressed by cheetahs, lions, and tigers.
There are actually more cats out in the wild than most of us have ever dreamed of, including the gorgeous Asiatic golden cat shown at the top of this post.
Today we are going to look at all of them, except for Fluffy and its wildcat relatives. I’m saving them until next time for two reasons:
The biological line between housecats and their ancestors – the wildcats (one word) – is blurry, so we need to check them out all together.
We do need to talk about how cats evolved. Even though that happened to wild cats (two words) over millions of years, Fluffy’s history is helpful. Cat breeders have been intentionally messing with its genes for over a century. Is the process that has given us the tailless Manx and the bald Donskoy typical of all evolution? Tune in next time and find out!
The following eight sections are based on the eight genetic lineages that DNA sequencing consistently shows in the cat family. (Johnson and others, 2006; Nyakatura and Bininda-Emonds)
They aren’t presented in the order in which each group evolved – those dates come out differently for different researchers. So far, I think, the only consensus is that there are eight lineages.
The pictures have all been generously donated to either Creative Commons or the public domain by many generous photographers. Be sure to check out their links in the image credits at the end of this post!
Let’s start out with the lineage that contains the cat featured at the top of this post – the Asiatic golden cat, known locally as the “fire tiger.” (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
Some of them are also called “false sabertooths.” (Antón)
Whether false or true, these now-extinct animals are giving scientists useful insights into the world of sabertoothed cats.
You probably haven’t heard of them.
Everybody knows Smilodon – the California state fossil and star of Ice Age. Quite a few laypeople recognize the name of Homotherium, too.
We met both of these and other popular sabertoothed cats last time.
But hardly anyone outside the Paleontology Department’s “cat” section has ever heard of Nimravides or the Metailurini.
As one noted geoscientist puts it: “I am fond of saying that 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. The realization of our uncertainty makes us uneasy, as does knowing that our explanations of the past are not more true, but only more plausible, than the stories told by creationists, extraterrestrialists, and other seers.” (Van Couvering)
When talking about fossil cats, paleontologists still have many “grave reservations” to overcome.
Very few of those issues came up last time, when we checked out the Homotheriini and the Smilodontini.
Those sabertooths get a lot of attention from the public as well as researchers, and paleontologists have researched them in great detail. (Werdelin and others)
However, the two tribes weren’t the only toothy big cats around during the Miocene epoch and the Plio-Pleistocene ice ages.
No history of feline evolution is complete without mention of:
Nimravides. Long-legged and the size of a modern lion (Hunt, 2004), this was a mysterious North American saber-cat.
The Metailurini. Part sabertooth, part “normal” cat, these predators had a much wider range than Nimravides. Some of them were the most common Pliocene felids in Africa. (Werdelin and Dehghani)
Aside from the occasional complete skeleton, most of the other sabertooth fossils are fragments that can be interpreted in different ways. (Turner and Antón)
Of course this leads to lots of scientific controversy.
Yet the basic facts about Nimravides and the Metailurini are clear enough.
Both cat groups developed around the same time as the early members of the Homotheriini and Smilodontini. Then they coexisted with the two tribes for millions of years.
Nimravides didn’t make it out of the Miocene epoch (Werdelin and others), but the last member of the Metailurini died relatively recently, during the second half of the Pleistocene. (Werdelin and Dehghani)
All of them were very successful predators, and here is their story, as far as researchers have been able to outline it to date.