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7 Crazy-Cool Facts About Feline Evolution

For one, there's a fish species that's more closely related to cats than to other fish.

 |  Jul 18th 2013  |   7 Contributions


Every day I receive a news alert with a list of stories and blog posts about cats. Last week, one of these communiqués sent me down a rabbit hole of nerdy thrills: I researched the evolution and ancient history of cats and found some amazing information -- which I’m sure you’ll geek out about, too. So, let’s begin at the beginning.

1. The cat family began about 60 million years ago

All carnivorous mammals are evolved from Miacids, inset-eating creatures that lived during the Paleocene epoch. The lineage that eventually produced cats began when the family Viverridae (civets and mongooses) split off from the Miacids. The Miacidae line eventually produced dogs, bears and otters, among others.

Reconstruction of the basal carnivore Miacis, (CC-BY-SA) by Wikimedia user Mr. Fink

2. The first proto-cats appeared 30 million years ago

The first cat to arise from that civet/mongoose lineage was called Proailuris (Latin for “first cat”), and it appeared during the early Oligocene epoch. Unlike today’s cats, Proailuris had short legs and a long body, and looked more like the fossa, an animal related to the mongoose, than a modern cat.

The earliest cats looked more like this Madagascan fossa than the cats we know today. Fossa by a river bank by Shutterstock

3. Hyenas are more closely related to cats than to dogs

You’d think from looking at a hyena that it must be a member of the dog family, but you’d be wrong. The Viverridae lineage didn’t just produce cats and mongooses; it produced hyenas, too. But why do hyenas have those bone-crushing jaws like dogs do? According to the fine folks at PHD TV, it’s an example of convergent evolution.

Despite its appearance, the hyena is much more closely related to the cat than to the dog. Hyena in the grasslands by Shutterstock

4. The sabertooth cat is not related to any cats alive today

There are many subfamilies within the family Felidae, and the sabertooth cats arose from the subfamily Machairodontinae, which, alas, became extinct around 13,000 years ago. Other Felidae subfamilies include Panthera (lions, tigers), Felis (small wildcats) and Miracinonyx (cheetahs).

The smilodon was one of the saber-tooth cats. Artist's conception of a smilodon by Shutterstock

5. There's a fish that's more like a cat than other fish

It all started when a creature called a Tiktaalik, a cross between a fish, a salamander and a crocodile, began roaming the seas. This creature had characteristics like fins supported by bones similar to those in our arms. Fast-forward 300 million years to the mid-2000s, when scientists realized that one of the Tiktaalik's descendents, the coelacanth (pronounced SEE-la-canth) still swam the earth. They asked fishermen who caught coelacanths by accident to give those fish a DNA test. It turns out that part of the coelacanth’s DNA is very different from that of other fish but quite similar to land-walking creatures -- including genes that guide the growth of arms and legs in mammals.

This coelacanth was caught off the coast of the Comoro Islands, located between Mozambique and Madagascar. Photo: Coelecanth at the Peabody Museum, New Haven, Connecticut, (CC-BY-SA) by Jerrye and Roy Klotz, MD

6. Cats have lived with people longer than we used to think

Back in the old days, scientists thought that the ancient Egyptians were the first people to keep cats as pets. But over the last several years, new discoveries in both genetics and archaeology have shown that cats and humans first began cohabitating as long as 10,000 years ago in the area known as the Fertile Crescent, when humans settled down and became an agricultural, rather than nomadic, society.

I couldn't find any photos of Assyrian art featuring cats, so this one will have to do. Wall carving of Assyrian men and horses by Shutterstock

7. Humans and cats share about 90 percent of their genes

This close genetic relationship isn’t too surprising, considering that both humans and cats are mammals. This similarity also means that cats experience a number of diseases and genetic disorders similar to those in humans. It’s also one reason why research to find a cure for AIDS in humans involves FIV in cats as a research model.

Do you want to know more about any of these facts? Do you have more up-to-date information on any of these topics? Is there any other crazy cat science that makes you curious? Ask your questions the comments, and I might answer you in a future article!

About JaneA Kelley: Punk-rock cat mom, science nerd, animal shelter volunteer, and all-around geek with a passion for bad puns, intelligent conversation, and role-play adventure games. She gratefully and gracefully accepts her status as chief cat slave for her family of feline bloggers, who have been writing their cat advice column, Paws and Effect, since 2003. JaneA dreams of making a great living out of her love for cats.

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