Ancient DNA Unravels Cat Domestication Like Ball of Yarn

By Gemma Tarlach | June 19, 2017 10:00 am
A new study fills in gaps in the when and where of cat domestication, explaining how the animals went from lean and vermin-chasing hunters to, uh, this. (Credit G. Tarlach)

A new study fills gaps in the when and where of cat domestication, explaining how the animals went from lean hunters to, uh, this. (Credit G. Tarlach…yes, it’s my cat, but don’t kvetch about his obesity. I took the photo shortly after I adopted him. Thanks to careful management he is now several pounds lighter.)

The truth about cats and dogs is this: despite being the two species that humans are most likely to have as pets, Rex and Ruffles had very different paths from the wild to our couches. Analyzing ancient and modern cat DNA, researchers believe they have figured out much of the mystery surrounding cat domestication — and no, it didn’t start in ancient Egypt.

(Credit Wikimedia Commons/Helgi Halldórsson)

(Credit Wikimedia Commons/Helgi Halldórsson)

Both the archaeological and paleogenetic record show that dogs are unique in being the only animal domesticated prior to the advent of agriculture — so while cat and dog fanciers will forever disagree on whether Canis lupus familiaris is indeed man’s best friend, science has shown us that it is at least man’s first friend. With an ongoing, multidisciplinary research project to pin down the origins of dogs, scientists are developing a fairly detailed picture of Fido’s roots.

But despite millions of us living in close quarters with cats, much of their backstory is unknown. Archaeologists have found some remains — the cat mummies of ancient Egypt are the most famous, though a much older complete cat skeleton was buried beside a human at a site in Cyprus that dates back to about 7,500 B.C. But researchers don’t have enough to be certain about where and when cat domestication occurred.

(We’re already pretty sure about the how of cat domestication…most researchers believe that, as Neolithic humans began to farm, they started storing grain, which attracted rodents. Wildcats, already dispersed across Africa, Europe and Asia, were attracted to grain-munching prey. In a kind of symbiosis called commensalism, humans tolerated the cats being around because the vermin hunters kept the grain pest-free. Over time, humans developed a more personal relationship with their local ratkillers. A 2013 study of 5,300-year-old cat remains from China, for example, found evidence that the animals were being cared for.)

Old Thinking Shredded

Published today in Nature Ecology & Evolution, researchers obtained genetic material from nearly 400 cats living and very dead. More than 350 ancient cat samples were collected, including from remains up to 9,000 years old. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, they were only able to obtain usable sequences of ancient DNA (aDNA) — in this case, maternally-inherited mitochondrial DNA — from 209 of the samples. That’s the thing about aDNA: the older it gets, the more degraded and tougher to work with it is.

The team also extracted the DNA of a couple dozen modern wildcats from Bulgaria and East Africa. Why wildcats? Well, today’s house cats are descended from Felis silvestris lybica, the only one of the five subspecies of F. silvestris ever domesticated (as far as we know). F. s. lybica is today dispersed across the northern half of Africa and southwest Asia, while F. s. silvestris is the subspecies found in Europe. Having DNA from these populations helps researchers compare domesticated cats with a broader range of wild distant relatives, leading to more refined datasets.

A map showing the modern distribution of the five subspecies of F. silvestris; numbers show where some of the samples used in the study were taken. (Credit Ottoni et al 2017)

From today’s paper in Nature Ecology & Evolution, the modern distribution of the five subspecies of F. silvestris; only one, F. s. lybica, has been domesticated, but that domestication occurred twice, in both southwestern Asia and Egypt. Numbers here refer to locations of samples used in the study. (Credit Ottoni et al 2017)

And those conclusions point to two lineages of domesticated cats. The first showed up in southwest Asia and reached Europe as early as 6,400 years ago. The second, originating in Egypt after the southwest Asian line and before 3,000 years ago, spread throughout the Mediterranean world along both land-based and maritime trade routes — no surprise there, since ship cats are a traditional way to reduce the number of wayfaring rodents aboard.

The lack of specificity in the dates may disappoint some readers, but analyzing F. s. lybica DNA is a tricky business, regardless of how old it is. As ship cats traveled further afield from their homelands, they enjoyed the occasional shore leave and bred with wild populations of at least two subspecies, tangling up all of the different lineages’ DNA.

(The research team also noted that the high degree of hybridization between domesticated and wild populations of cats, which continues today, explains why the average house cat retains much of the look and behavior of its wild distant kin, in contrast with dogs.)

An illustration of F. s. lybica shows how similar the wildcat is to today's house cat, due to continued hybridization between populations. (Credit Wikimedia Commons/artist unknown)

An illustration of F. s. lybica shows how similar the wildcat is to today’s house cat, due to continued hybridization between populations. (Credit Wikimedia Commons/artist unknown)

From Stripes To Splotches

Today’s study also charts the rise of the single mutation that gives us today’s rather common tabby coat pattern, and in doing so sheds additional light on cat domestication overall.

A few years ago, researchers discovered that the Taqpep gene controls whether a cat is striped (or, in cheetahs, spotted) or has more of a blotchy pattern. That blotchiness, though present in 80 percent of house cats today, is recessive, and seldom seen in the wild.

A single mutation on the Taqpep gene causes a blotched coat pattern, common in house cats but rare in the wild, where the striped, or mackerel, pattern, is typical. (Credit Ottoni et al 2017)

A single mutation on the Taqpep gene causes a blotched coat pattern, common in house cats but rare in the wild, where the striped, or mackerel, pattern, is typical. (Credit Ottoni et al 2017)

Today’s team found that, before the Middle Ages, the striped (mackerel) pattern typical of wildcats also dominated in domesticated cats. It was only later, particularly from the 18th century on, that they saw the blotchy pattern becoming widespread.

Because blotchiness appears to be an appearance trait that humans selectively bred domesticated cats to have, and because it occurred millennia after cat domestication itself, the team concluded that the emphasis on earlier selective breeding was for behavioral traits rather than looks. In other words, having a cat that was a great mouser or particularly sure-footed on a ship’s deck was more important than whatever this is:

Exotic shorthair kitten (Credit Wikimedia Commons/Charlyn Wee)

Exotic shorthair kitten (Credit Wikimedia Commons/Charlyn Wee)

Can’t get enough of the kittehs? I know videos featuring cats are few and far between on the internet (/sarcasm) so feast your eyes and ears on a Nature short summing up today’s research.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
  • AlDavisJr

    Cats are such great animals for house pets, especially for city dwellers. All are unique, and will never act dog like.

    • CuriousMind

      For the most part I agree with you, @AlDavisJr, but I have to differ on the “non-doglike” part, at least to some degree. 😀 Our two cats have trained us very well to take them for walks around our property — no day is complete unless we have paraded with them around the perimeter of the front and back yards at least once! To be fair, though, they won’t do it on leashes…

      • AlDavisJr

        I rethought my post. I had a tuxedo cat that loved going for walks on a leash. Now we have a mackerel tabby that acts like a puppy sometimes. I was wrong…sorta…

        • CuriousMind


      • MusicLover

        The key phrase is “have trained us.” Mine have trained me to all sorts of things. Dogs have owners; cats have staff.

        • CuriousMind

          Too true! And yet… we still love them, as much as we love our dogs.

      • Cat

        Yeah, and my cats (2) are sort-of dog-like. One chases her tail, and sometimes lets us put her on a leash and walk on the sidewalk (for about 10 feet though).

        • CuriousMind

          We’ve gotten our cats to walk on leash when we travel with them (they’ve been to 3 or 4 different states now…), but we have to kind of let them lead us — or at least let them think they’re leading!

        • Jan

          I got a pet stroller for my cat, he does very well in it.

    • Dennis Spirgen

      Possibly true as a generalization, but I had a rescue cat for 12 years, and it was so canine in its behavior that we referred to him as the “dog-cat.”

      • CuriousMind

        😀 — we call ours a dog-cat-fish, because he also likes to chase around a practice lure on an old fishing pole (no fears, it’s a rubber plug, no hooks involved). In fact, he sometimes pulls hard enough to break it off, and then he does the dog thing and tries to hide (“bury”) it. Silly kitty…

    • Christopher Carr

      Big, gregarious male cats will act a little dog-like — like their bellies rubbed, will follow you on walks.

      There are some breeds of dogs that are very independent-minded like a cat — thinking particularly the Turkish livestock guardian dogs.

      My female Anatolian exhibits cat-like levels of “oh, you were talking to me? Nope, not doing that.”

  • Joe Maxwell

    We have 3 dogs and 1 cat. The cat loves the dogs and cuddles with them. She loves to play with them and prefers to sleep cuddled up to one of them. I am not sure cats are completely domesticated or ever will be. You do not own them. They own you and you better behave.

    • Linda Huthmaker

      And what about a feral who will not acclimate, after 6 days? I have a few (sarcasm) cats, in this house, and I want her to be like them-but, so far, she’s not

      • Carole Sarvis

        6 days is a short time for assimilation.

        • Cat

          What does assimilation mean?

          • Deborah Rebisz

            Assimilating into the environment…becoming a part of it and losing the wildness.

          • Linda Huthmaker

            Getting along with everyone

          • Idefix Canis

            “You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.”
            It’s what cats want to do to people.

        • Linda Huthmaker

          I knew that she wouldn’t take to my cats quickly-hence, putting her in the bathroom-but she had no use for me, either Her owner is coming back to pick her up, and return her to the garage, where she was living. She will NEVER get domesticated now, I can assure you

      • CuriousMind

        And she probably never will be. You may be able to ease some of the feral out of her, but she will probably never be as domesticated as your domestic cats. And Carole Sarvis is right — 6 days IS too short a time to expect a new at to take up with the old cats. That can take weeks to months. It just all depends on the personalities involved, and how you go about introducing them to each other.

      • lindsncal

        Cats develop in their first few months or so and what they learn usually stays with them their entire lives. Yours will tame down some but probably never like a cat who was raised by humans.

      • Jojo Fisher

        I got one, she still wants to eat mice, rabbits. And birds. She does warn us when a snake is close.

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