Understanding Your Cat’s Wild Side

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Yves here. I hope you are one of those readers who thinks it is not possible to overdo on cat-material-as-mental-health break. YouTube has finally gotten better algos and after nearly a year of suggesting survivalist videos, MSM news clips, and home repair, I’m now always getting a short cat video as a top recommendation.

The book reviewed below, The Cat’s Meow: How Cats Evolved from the Savanna to Your Sofa, focuses on how little domesticated house cats really are. But it appears not to have taken up the recent theory that cats domesticated themselves (some may argue cats domesticated people). From Science:

The rise of cats may have been inevitable. That’s one intriguing interpretation of a new study, which finds that early Chinese farmers may have domesticated wild felines known as leopard cats more than 5000 years ago. If true, this would indicate that cats were domesticated more than once—in China, and 5000 years earlier in the Middle East. It would also suggest that the rise of farming was destined to give rise to the house cat.

“This is very important work that should have a great impact,” says Fiona Marshall, a zooarchaeologist at Washington University in St. Louis in Missouri. Cats, she notes, largely domesticated themselves, and if this happened twice it could indicate that a whole host of animals—from donkeys to sheep—may have become domesticated with less human involvement than previously thought. “This is the leading edge in a shift in thinking about domestication processes.”

By Hope Reese, a journalist in Budapest, Hungary. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Vox, and other publications. Originally published at Undark

If you think your pet cat has a wild side, you’re not wrong. According to evolutionary biologist Jonathan B. Losos, “housecats aren’t that different from mountain lions.” In his latest book, “The Cat’s Meow: How Cats Evolved from the Savanna to Your Sofa,” Losos guides readers through the evolutionary history of felines, uncovering the ancestral roots of the modern housecat.

Not to worry: This isn’t another cute cat book. Instead, Losos, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis whose specialty is studying a large family of tree-living lizards known as anoles, taps deeply into a wide range of feline research, from digital tracking of nighttime activity to DNA testing, to show how much we’ve learned so far about cats — and how much is still left to discover.

BOOK REVIEW“The Cat’s Meow: How Cats Evolved from the Savanna to Your Sofa,” by Jonathan B. Losos (Viking, 400 pages).

The earliest cats lived about 30 million years ago — the species we now call Proailurus lemanensis — but about 10 million years later, evolution “kicked into gear,” Losos writes, when felines diverged into two groups: the saber-toothed cats, which eventually became extinct, and the conical-toothed group, which evolved into today’s Felis catus.Genetically linked to the North African wildcat Felis silvestris lybica, the first domestic cats appeared about 10,000 years ago. Most researchers believe that living near humans in early agrarian communities, where cats presumably shared food and helped control rodents — a mutually beneficial arrangement — probably led to the domestication of today’s housecats.

While there is a substantial fossil record for the saber-tooth line, the conical-toothed group is much harder to trace back. Today, there are up to 42 species of wild felinesderived from the conical branch – including ocelots, bobcats, lions, and cheetahs. “Big cats are the celebrities of the feline world,” Losos writes, but most species are about the size of a housecat and look quite similar. “Quick test: how many cat species can you think of that weigh less than fifty pounds?” he challenges the reader. “Clearly, the little-cat side of the feline family needs a better PR agent.”

The extraordinary diversity of today’s cat breeds “occurred in decades rather than millennia,” Losos notes. And while selective breeding has led to at least 73 breeds of domestic cats — hairless, floppy eared, Siamese, and so on — most are little changed from their wild ancestors. “Look underneath the paint job — the variation in hair length, color, and texture — and most domestic cats are nearly indistinguishable from wildcats,” he writes. “The differences in anatomy, physiology, and behavior that distinguish most domesticated species from their ancestors don’t exist in cats.”

Losos goes on to spend a good chunk of the book explaining the similarities and differences between housecats and their wild ancestors. “Whereas dogs have diverged from wolves in many genes, domestic cats and wildcats differ in only a handful,” Losos writes. “Cats truly are scarcely domesticated.”

In 2014, geneticists at Washington University in St. Louis sequenced an entire genome (of about 20,000 genes, similar to humans) of a cat named Cinnamon. Only 13 genes “showed evidence of having been changed by natural selection during the domestication process,” he writes. In a wolves-to-dogs comparison, meanwhile, there were almost three times as many. In fact, Losos prefers the term “semidomesticated,” since the cat’s evolutionary history is so different from the dog and other domesticated species.

The small fraction of altered genes, plus the high similarity in anatomy and behavior between housecats and wildcats, demonstrates how similar housecats are to their ancestors — even though they are different species, Losos writes. Another telltale sign of how close the two are: the speed with which a domesticated cat will lose its socialization skills and quickly adapt to living in the wild.

That said, today’s housecats exhibit many behaviors that seem to be linked to their relationship with humans. In fact, the very thing that distinguishes them from their ancestors is that they get along with us. Their purring, meowing, kneading, and hunting habits (they don’t hunt in groups, for instance) have all diverged from their African forebears.

Losos is a quirky and engaging writer. His book covers virtually everything cat-related — from research into feral cat populations and how much mileage cats cover in their nighttime wanderings, which can be tracked through special GPS collars, to breeding preferences and why a cat’s tail, when held up straight, is a friendly sign (it’s a signal to strangers from a long distance).

We learn that the neighborhood of Nachlaot in central Jerusalem “boasts the highest concentration of cats ever recorded anywhere in the world,” according to Losos — equivalent to 6,300 per square mile — and is the site of important research into the traits of both domesticated and non-domesticated cats.

Regarding natural selection, Losos reveals that male lions who take control of a new pride often kill the newborns of female lionesses fathered by other males. It’s an adaptation that makes evolutionary sense, he maintains, as the lionesses will more quickly bear cubs fathered by the new males, furthering their genes. Male housecats, on the other hand, don’t work together in lion-like coalitions; they are solitary and tend to move from one female to the next, racking up as many sexual partners as possible. (Though they have been known to occasionally exhibit infanticide.)

Losos himself owns three cats, and often draws on his personal observations to shed light on the nuances of housecat behavior, such as the frequency of cat fighting. “In one survey,” he notes, “45 percent of respondents who live in multicat households reported fighting among their cats at least once a month.”

Along the way, he visits some debates that he prefers not to wade into at length, such as the ethics of breeding, though he says there is one practice about which “there should be no debate: declawing and similar procedures are mutilation and are morally indefensible.”

Losos frequently mentions the shortcomings of current feline research. How did purring evolve, for example, and why do kittens knead? “From topics as disparate as what’s going on in their heads, what impact they have on North American wildlife populations, and where exactly they were domesticated, there’s a lot left for us learn,” he concludes.

But it remains difficult to determine which traits are unique to housecats, since their evolution has been complicated by interbreeding: “Wildcats the world over appear to be interbreeding willy-nilly with domestic cats,” he writes.

Even as many other wild cat species become increasingly endangered, Losos contends that there’s “no doubt” that today’s domestic cats — currently some 600 million — will continue to thrive. Just as the first cat species, 30 million years ago, spawned cheetahs, lions, and more, “time will tell whether Felis catus spawns an equally rich evolutionary lineage,” Losos writes. “I wouldn’t bet against it.”

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  1. Tinky

    Why do cats (not only kittens) knead? I’ve never done a minute’s worth of research, and have simply assumed that it is a closely related physical manifestation of deeply ingrained, early memories of suckling.

  2. The Rev Kev

    Over the past few thousand years, people have domesticated a wide range of animals. But I think that there are only two of them that were actually predators too – wolves and wildcats. Those first wolves from a now extinct branch have been bred to a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Cats, not so much as this book points out. I do wonder if the reason that they have become so close to us is that they were predators unlike so many of the other species that were originally our prey-


    1. playon

      The Chinese have been known to eat cats. One older Chinese friend of mine told me that his grandmother used to cook cat ears… mmm crispy.

          1. R.S.

            Yeah, “Katzenfresser”. I guess something like that could have happened in bad times, but it’s more of a jibe and an old urban legend.

            You may search on youtube e.g. for “La Table Suisse – ein ganz besonderes Restaurant stellt sich vor”. It was a mockup ad by some German creative agency that caused a sh-storm several years ago.

  3. thoughtfulperson

    As for the final question, will cats evolve, they will need to survive the currently occurring great extinction event (aka “The Jackpot” for humans). Domestic cats have bet on humans. Right now that looks quite iffy! However there is a small wild feline that lives in Patagonia. My thinking is that proximity to Antarctica, and the glacial ice mass in Patagonia, as well might help keep that region liveable a bit longer.

  4. Carolinian

    I’ve read that the cat style of “ambush hunting” makes them much more efficient as predators and that they dominated in North America before humans came along. We are the reason dogs subsequently reversed this while those wild cat species were viewed as a menace by the dogs’ protectors.

    Maybe the balance is now tipping in the other direction as the felines get with the program and hunt Fancy Feast.

    1. Lambert Strether

      > I’ve read that the cat style of “ambush hunting”

      I have heard that’s the explanation for why cats love to sit in or hide themselves in boxes. I don’t know if that explanation is in the book. I also don’t know if the book explains why cats like to sit on paper, or on your keyboard when you are using it.

  5. petal

    This was really interesting, thank you! Sent to it to my cat people. My job focuses more on dogs(Elaine Ostrander at NIH does some neat dog genetics), so I don’t think too much about cats these days even though we always had them when I was growing up-house cats and strays and ferals. I love dogs, but I do miss having a cat. It always felt like a big reward when they decided they wanted to hang out with you.

    Ode to Spot

  6. JonnyJames

    I love animals. We have two tabbies we got at the SPCA and a Golden Retriever rescue dog. The two cats are male and female litter mates and they never really fight. We are lucky they get along so well, and they often sleep curled up with each other – it’s too cute. NC and Yves always post adorable critter pics – that’s another great thing about this site and I appreciate it.

    The article talks about lions and domestic cats: I think lions are the only cats that have social groups, the rest of the cat family are largely solitary. The article suggests that most in the cat family hunt in groups, but I don’t think that is true. Do feral cats form social groups? Maybe they have evolved to do so?

    Our cats are strictly indoor, they would not survive outside as there are too many dangerous wild critters: coyote, puma, bear etc. But they don’t even want to go outside, which is a relief. I can only speculate that since cats have evolved with humans for so long, they have adapted to indoor settings and their strong instinct to roam over large distances has been diminished. Of course, some cats still have a very strong instinctive drive to roam over a large territory outside, but it seems increasingly that more cats are comfortable indoors. Does anyone else have indoor only cats?

    1. playon

      Our cat loves being outside and she becomes very grumpy if she doesn’t get to go out. She is very vocal so it’s hard to ignore her when she wants to go outside. We walk her on a leash or tie her out and keep an eye on her but we don’t let her out on her own any more — she is small and got beat up pretty bad by one of the neighborhood cats this winter which required an costly Sunday visit to the vet.

      1. JonnyJames

        Yes I forgot: the neighborhood bully cat (and dogs) are also a danger. Sorry to hear your cat got beat up, at least your kitty will be safe indoors. We had a cat in years past that freaked out if she didn’t get to go outside, we tried to keep her indoors, but she kept peeing on the door etc. We ended up letting her outside, but years later, she got killed by a neighbor’s dog.

        Also, cats kill so many birds that bird-lovers urge cat owners to keep them inside, or on a leash outside. We used to put a bell on our cats when I was a kid, to make it harder for them to catch birds.

        1. Don

          Our cat, a Bengal (which is a cross between the Asian leopard cat [felis bengalis]], that was mentioned above as being domesticated by Chinese farmers) and a domestic cat, only goes outside on a leash, which he loves — if you drop the leash, he gets upset. He is 22 now, and slowing down a bit, but in his younger years he would occasionally lunge off the path and nab an unfortunate mouse, in spite of the leash. We have never encountered a Bengal that showed any resistance to a leash. our former Bengal tried to slip his head into it when he wanted to go for a walk.

  7. Antagonist Muscles

    Moar! Don’t limit yourself to cat-mental-health-break posts. If there was a post about, say, dog intelligence, I would be all over it like white on rice. I seldom comment in the daily Links, but I am a total sucker for the first couple links about animal intelligence/behavior. Today’s cat in the antidote is stunning.

    I don’t even know why since I have never owned a pet, and I hang around in suburban areas all the time, never interacting with animals. I stopped using YouTube[1], but my history is undoubtedly full of dog and wildlife videos. I suppose the real reason why is because I like the intellectual distraction of reading about pets as opposed to other distractions that in the past turned into addictions.

    [1]: I thought we didn’t like Google’s monopolistic, pro-censorship, and pro-surveillance practices. Surely, Google applied similar unethical practices to Youtube. I have noticed backlash here about the evils of smartphones, the NSA, the untrustworthiness of Wikipedia, Facebook, Silicon Valley technocrats, etc. Why don’t we try to kick the Youtube habit?

  8. Stephen V

    I had a feral cat that I was able to tame due to near ideal barn habitat behind my workplace. We brought him into our home before winter hit a few years back and he died in ny arms 2 years later.
    One can observe cats purring in unusual situations: e.g. when a euthanasia shot is being administered.
    Paco continued to “purr” after he had lost consciousness–until he stretched out one final time. Something deeper is going on than reacting to the environment methinks.

  9. Paradan

    I’ve always said that raccoons are the next dog, but now that I think of it, there more like the next cat.

      1. Paradan

        Not advocating for people to give it a try, but I feel it’s inevitable over the next 200(?) years or so. Basically see it as the result of a shared habitat.

    1. Joe Well

      Raccoons are adorable. In Mexico some neighbors were feeding the wild raccoons and they would come and stand on their hind legs to beg for food, or jist try to steal it. One time I saw a shopping bag sliding across the porch table just in time.

  10. semper loquitur

    “Most researchers believe that living near humans in early agrarian communities, where cats presumably shared food and helped control rodents — a mutually beneficial arrangement”

    That’s fascinating! I wonder if the cats were stingy.

  11. Darius

    Based only on reading here and there about it, I hypothesize that cats first gathered by human settlements to prey on the mice and rats. Only the ones who could tolerate being around other cats could take advantage. So barns, etc. became inhabited by cats. The next step was to tolerate humans. At some point they came to prefer humans. Our cat chose us. We didn’t have a cat until he came to our door in a blizzard. We’re his family. He hates other cats.

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