Tag Archives: Feline Friday

 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 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

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.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hoplophoneus#/media/File:Hoplophoneus_primevus_IMG_4443.jpg

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.  palaeo-electronica.org/content/fc-1. 

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.