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Planet Earth

Evolution & the cat

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanMay 27, 2009 8:37 PM


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Scientific American has a long piece reviewing the recent genetic insights into the origins and development of the most awesome pets of all:

It is by turns aloof and affectionate, serene and savage, endearing and exasperating. Despite its mercurial nature, however, the house cat is the most popular pet in the world. A third of American households have feline members, and more than 600 million cats live among humans worldwide. Yet as familiar as these creatures are, a complete understanding of their origins has proved elusive. Whereas other once wild animals were domesticated for their milk, meat, wool or servile labor, cats contribute virtually nothing in the way of sustenance or work to human endeavor. How, then, did they become commonplace fixtures in our homes? Scholars long believed that the ancient Egyptians were the first to keep cats as pets, starting around 3,600 years ago. But genetic and archaeological discoveries made over the past five years have revised this scenario--and have generated fresh insights into both the ancestry of the house cat and how its relationship with humans evolved.

This part on the look of modern cats was surprising to me:

Although humans might have played some minor role in the development of the natural breeds in the Orient, concerted efforts to produce novel breeds did not begin until relatively recently. Even the Egyptians, who we know were breeding cats extensively, do not seem to have been selecting for visible traits, probably because distinctive variants had not yet arisen: in their paintings, both wildcats and house cats are depicted as having the same mackerel-tabby coat. Experts believe that most of the modern breeds were developed in the British Isles in the 19th century, based on the writings of English natural history artist Harrison Weir. And in 1871 the first proper fancy cat breeds--breeds created by humans to achieve a particular appearance--were displayed at a cat show held at the Crystal Palace in London (a Persian won, although the Siamese was a sensation).

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