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Domestic Cat Origins – Is Your Pet Merely a Tame Wildcat?

European WildcatCat owners quickly notice how closely their pets’ behavior follows that of their wild relatives…in fact, Domestic Cats are classified by many mammalogists as a subspecies of the Wildcat.  Recent research has shed light on the Domestic Cat’s true ancestor and its original time and place of domestication.

Supreme Survivors

Domestic Cats slide seamlessly from indoor to outdoor life, and their adaptability amazes biologists who study feral populations.  Those living in one Australian desert never encounter standing water, yet get along quite well; a group shipwrecked on Marion Island, off the tip of South America, thrives in the shadow of Antarctica – further south than any other non-marine mammal!

Adaptability has helped the 5 subspecies of the Wildcat (Felis sylvestris) to survive in habitats ranging from Chinese deserts to African village outskirts (please see map).

Domestication Theory Overturned

The Near Eastern or African Wildcat (please see photo) has commonly been credited as the ancestor of the Domestic Cat.  Because of its prominence in ancient Egyptian culture, it was believed that Wildcats were the first domesticated there.  Based on archaeological studies, the time of domestication was given as approximately 4,000 years ago. 

The discovery of a 9,500 year-old apparently Domestic Cat in a tomb in Cyprus set the domestication date much further back in time.  Wildcats are not native to Cyprus – the animal is believed to be a Near Eastern Wildcat, taken there by people from Turkey (please see article below).

Wild Ancestor(s)

Each of the 5 Wildcat subspecies – the European, Near Eastern, South African, Central Asian and Chinese Desert – interbreed among themselves and with feral Domestic Cats, so the ancestor of our pets could have been any of these.  Advances in genetic studies, however, has now given us a definitive answer.

Researchers at the US National Cancer Institute and the University of Oxford analyzed DNA from all 5 Wildcat subspecies, and determined that the Near Eastern Wildcat (Felis sylvestris lybica) gave rise to the modern day Domestic Cat, and that the site of original domestication, some 10,000 years ago, was in the area known as the “Fertile Crescent”, in what is now Iraq.

This finding coincides nicely with other evidence.  The cat’s association with people came when grains were first being cultivated and stored…the cat’s prowess as a rodent killer would have made it a welcome guest.  Interestingly, Near Eastern Wildcat kittens are relatively easy to tame and even today they often reside near people and interbreed with Domestic Cats.  Not so with all Wildcats – colleagues of mine contend that the European Wildcat (please see photo) is impossible to tame, even when bottle-raised!

What is a Domestic Cat?

African WildcatThe traditional definition of a species is the ability to mate and produce fertile young – Domestic Cats do so with all Wildcat subspecies.  Many taxonomists, therefore, classify the Domestic Cat as a Wildcat subspecies, Felis sylvestris catus, rather than as a distinct species (F. catus).

The odd appearance of a young Bobcat I once trapped led me to believe that one of its parents was a Domestic Cat, but experts are split on this possibility – more on that in the future.

 

Further Reading

Leopard Cat/Domestic Cat hybrids are popular pets; read more here.

Discovery of the Oldest Known Pet Cat.

Small Wild Cat Conservation

European Wildcat image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Aconcagua

African Wildcat image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Sonelle

11 comments

  1. avatar

    I love to read another your post, this is very usefull. Thanks for your wondeful information!

  2. avatar

    Hello Anjing, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks for your interest in our blog and the kind words. I look forward to hearing from you in the future.

    Please let me know if you need any further information. Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  3. avatar

    Nice article about cat’s pets. I have a cute white cat really she is a very nice and so cute I like so much her.The European, Near Eastern, South African, Central Asian and Chinese Desert – interbreed among themselves and with feral Domestic Cats, so the ancestor of our pets could have been any of these. Advances in genetic studies, however, has now given us a definitive answer. Really your blog is very nice and good information in your blog.I will bookmark and check again here regularly. Thanks for nice information.

  4. avatar

    Hallo Frank

    You guys are so interesting!

    Anyhow, I tend to think that it would almost be easier to reverse our thoughts….it is almost easier to think that domesticated cats, in time ran off and evolved into wild cats!
    What ever the case may be, interesting to me is that it seems that cats are the most adaptable creatures of all…I mean adaptable in the sense that you can find one or another cat species anywhere on earth except at the arctic…?

    Thanxzzz again for your amazing articles!

  5. avatar

    Hello Gert, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks for you’re the kind words…and your posts on this and our reptile and bird blogs are among the most interesting we receive!

    Good point …domestic cats are in just about every habitat imaginable. The population off Tierra del Fuego, near Antarctica, fascinates me. In parts of Africa they regularly breed with the native wild cat; here in NY feral cats breed twice yearly. The second litter arrives in September, and the young often experience frigid weather but usually do well.

    As for other cats, the Siberian Tiger actually does range into the Arctic Circle…amazing. Seems the tiger actually evolved in Russia/Siberia, ad spread south all the way to Indonesia, splitting into subspecies along the way.

    Please let me know if you need any further information. Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio

  6. avatar

    Dear Frank

    This time thanks for the compliments comes from my side!
    As to your fishblog…that is where I actually DID find you guys! It was due to the search for how to keep pogycentrus nattereri. I am busy writing a tiny summery there as well, but only for little later! Up to then I am VERY fond of that fishblog as well, especially Jose’s Tanganyika and other cichlids (which I keep as well).

    Back to the cat…I actually never was fond of domestic cats for when I was small I rescued a tiny sparrow and the night before I wanted to release it, it was caught and eaten by a cat….! (Even the plain house sparrow is interesting in its distribution as well as its domination rules which are mainly fixed on the strength of the brown coloration of its chest!) But that’s long ago and actually I want to thank you for the amazing facts you share…like the “double” breeding of the feral cat-WOW. Obviously then the Siberian tiger…when I see commercials using this extreme beautiful creature I sometimes get depressed for mostly these people do not even know its scars whereabouts!
    Each Easter holiday we camp in the bush in the vicinity of the wild leopards. Each morning wandering in the riverbeds we come across new fresh footprints and an aerie but yet exciting motion fills the air when we feel we are not “alone”…!!! These guys are quite well distributed in our country and even are a plague to some cattle farmers but yet it is very difficult to find them in the bushes!

    Please keep up your good work and thanxzzz again!
    Gert

  7. avatar

    Hello Gert, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks…I do remember you on the fish blog as well – looks like we’ll need to add another to keep up with your interests! Lots of studies on feral cats have shown that in urban/urban areas they are a real drain on songbird populations; on one tiny island (details escape me now), a single lighthouse-keeper’s cat is blamed for the extinction of a flightless bird!

    Leopards have always fascinated me…so amazingly adaptable to humans, in most cases anyway; I’ve worked with them, but need to get to see them in the wild- high on my list. Must be quite a thrill to have them so close at hand….The Amur leopard, which gets nearly as far north as the Siberian tiger, may be the world’s rarest large cat; many smaller ones – Iriomote Cat, Spanish Lynx, are just as scarce…lots of work to be done.

    Please let me know if you need any further information. Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio

  8. avatar

    Yes Frank, even I have the leopard on my “still want to see in the wild” list together with our hyenas(my favorite wild animal)!
    Any how, beware of the leopard!!!I find their behavior very similar to the piranha. In the sense of if you leave them alone, you’re fine but BEWARE if the felt cornered….their are countless reports in Namibia regarding leopard attacks. The lady of a camera crew who was killed by a ” tame” leopard recently!
    The Amur leopard I think on ” planet earth” they mentioned only about 40 left? As to the other species I always hope that their slim appearance has rather to do with their great camouflage ability…?!
    As you can see I do not know too much but at least I (and so many other followers) do learn so much from you guys!
    P.S. That lighthouse-keeper’s cat is now on my list of unfriendly creatures…LOL

  9. avatar

    Hello Gert, Frank Indiviglio here. Thanks for the kind words.

    Thanks for the first hand info. Most everyone I have spoken with regarding leopards in the wild echoes your opinion. Amurs are estimated at 40 or so, but so hard to get accurate counts in their habitat.

    Captives are, in my experience, unique among cats in their alertness, responsiveness, reactions. Two black phase animals I had (confiscated as cubs in Mexico, pet trade) were needed for a Bx Zoo TV commercial but would not stand up and look “alert” as was “requested. They were older by this time, well adjusted to crowds and such, and not much stimulated them…except seeing-eye dogs, which they stalked. Lacking one at the time of filming I tried another novel prey item. The head of one of another departments had his family in for the filming; I asked to “borrow” his infant daughter and held her up high where the cats could see her – worked very well! Of course, this being NYC, his wife was very concerned over the “trauma” that this experience may have caused the tot’s psyche!!…but she had a blast, judging from her reactions, and I hope she remembers somehow!

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio

  10. avatar

    Ha Ha Ha! Funny story Frank. Pure mother, I hope SHE has come over the trauma!We as parents can make or brake (being a culprit myself).At least I try to get my kids to handle scorpions, spiders and some snakes…when we are searching for scorpions and we find one, I first have to calm my boys for they argue who’s going to pick up the scorpion first…LOL and at least my wife steps in when things get to uncomfortable and that’s good so!

  11. avatar

    Hello Gert, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks…I think your kids must be in their glory, and are very lucky!

    I’m the same with my 3 yr old cousin, whom I’m with often. He knows how to grab a crayfish to keep from being pinched (he shows his mother, but won’t let her try yet!) and knows which bugs he can handle and which to avoid. Last week he shocked me by netting a young painted turtle from a lake we frequent – I thought he was just babbling on about turtles, and was so surprised when he brought it over to me…

    Please let me know if you need any further information. Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
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