House Cats' Wild Ancestor Found

Scottish wildcats. (Image credit: Ewan Macdonald)

Domestic cats have been traced back to a single wild ancestor whose relatives still live in the remote deserts of the Middle East today.

The transformation of a vicious predator into a docile tabby took place some 10,000 years ago, a new genetic analysis suggests. That is the same time humans adopted an agricultural lifestyle in the Fertile Crescent. So the first of the friendly cats likely acted as a mouse hunter for grain-storage areas.

“We think that was the beginning of one of the most interesting natural history experiments ever done,” said Stephen O’Brien, a geneticist at the National Cancer Institute in Maryland, “which is the changing of a wild, ferocious predator into a friendly mouser that decided to hang its wagon on humankind.”

Until now, scientists knew close to nil about the genetic relationships between different types of cats, including wild versus domestic varieties.

Well-kempt housecats can and often do breed with wild species, which has made it tricky for scientists to distinguish between a hybrid wild-domestic feline and a purely wild or house variety.

Kitty genes

The key difference between the two is behavior. Domestic cats can live in groups and are generally not afraid of people. Since behavioral analyses of a large and diverse group of cats would be nearly impossible, an international research team turned to genetics.

Carlos Driscoll of the National Cancer Institute and his colleagues analyzed genetic material from nearly 1,000 cats, including domestic cats and the wild cat subspecies: the European wildcat, Near Eastern wildcat, Central Asian wildcat, southern African wildcat and Chinese desert cat.

They found that each wild group represents a subspecies of the wildcat Felis silvestris. The DNA from domestic cats matched up with that of the Near Eastern wildcat subspecies Felis silvestris lybica, which lives in the remote deserts of Israel and Saudi Arabia.

They detail the results this week in the online version of the journal Science.

Feline family

The lineage that includes the domestic cat and its wild relatives originated earlier than previously thought, about 130,000 years ago.

The cats probably took two separate routes out of the Middle East, the scientists speculate. One group trekked to Egypt while the others traveled from Mesopotamia to India, then to China and much later made their way to Japan.

As to when domestic cats popped onto the scene, Driscoll said they don’t have the information to make a valid estimate.

To solve that puzzle, scientists are turning to written historical records and archaeological evidence. For instance, Egyptian tomb paintings indicate that by 3,600 years ago domestic cats were living in Egypt, Driscoll said. And a cat and human burial site dating back 9,500 years was unearthed in Cyprus recently.

A possible boon to this puzzle, O’Brien mentioned, is the completion of the cat genome. O’Brien and his colleagues sequenced and characterized the genetic material from a domestic cat named Cinnamon living in Columbia, Missouri. They hope to find specific genes related to cat tameness.

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Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.