The Mysterious Origins of cat Domestication Uncovered in China
by Joseph Bennington-Castro
Researchers studying a 5,000-year-old archaeological site in China have discovered that wildcats first came to ancient villages to feed on rodents, which were stealing farmers’ grains. The research shows, for the first time, how the process of cat domestication started.
Over the years, there have been a number of different thoughts as to how domestication of various animals came about. Some people proposed that early domestication involved a kind of master-subject relationship, where humans guided wild animals to domestication through selective breeding and other techniques. On the opposite end of the spectrum, one theory holds that some domesticates manipulated humans into relationships that benefited the animals, at, possibly, the expense of people.
Species most frequently became domesticated through the commensal pathway, Marshall told io9. Here, animals, including dogs, pigs and chicken, came to human settlements to eat refuse or prey on other animals. At some point, the animals developed closer bonds with humans, which eventually grew into a domestic relationship. Researchers have reasoned that Near Eastern Wildcats (Felis silvestris lybica; below) — which are thought to be the ancestors of all domestic cats — became domesticated through a commensal pathway, after they began visiting human settlements to eat rodents. Surprisingly, however, there has been little archaeological evidence to back up this idea…
Top image: zaimoku_woodpile/Flickr; mid images: Some of the cat specimens unearthed: A. left mandible; B. right humerus; C. left pelvis; D. left tibia. Via PNAS; bttm image: Near Eastern Wildcat via Péter Csonka/Wikimedia Commons.
Keratin barbs on the tongue and glans of the domestic housecat.
You may have heard that cats have “spiked penises”, which is true, to an extent. The barbs on the glans of the male consist of the same backward-facing keratin barb structures that are present on the tongue, though clearly they’re not used for the same purposes.
While many male mammals have similar spines on their genitals, the purpose of them is not universally known. In felines, however, it’s believed that the barbs raking the inside of the vagina induces ovulation in the queen (female cat). [read more on why cats don’t menstruate but humans do]
It’s less understood why our ape bretheren, who have cyclical ovulation similar to humans, also have keratin spikes on their penises. It may be an evolutionary holdover from a common ancestor with prosimians, who have much more complex penis barbs, and who appear to have similarly triggered ovulation as felines.
Somewhere along the line, the genes that create these keratin spikes were lost in humans, but in some people, the non-barbed keratin (“pearly”) papules around the glans or shaft are a benign throwback to an ancient ancestor. Luckily, even though we have the genes to create the papules (generally not activated), we’ve literally lost the genes that create the spiked barbs on top of them.
P.S. When a cat is neutered, its penis loses its barbs. One of the ways to detect if a stray cat who appears to have been fixed actually has one or more retained testes (where the testicle does not descend into the scrotum) is to check the glans of its penis for barbs.
A portrait of a European wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris), a subspecies of the wildcat which inhabits the forests and grasslands of Europe, as well as Turkey and the Caucasus Mountains; this specimen was photographed in Wisentgehege Springe game park, near Springe, Hanover, Germany. The species can be differentiated from the domestic cat by its bulkier body, thick fur, and non-tapered tail.
Australian Cats and Foxes May Not Deserve Their Bad Rep
by Gabriel Popkin
Foxes and feral cats are wildly unpopular among Australian conservationists. The two animals are infamous for killing off the continent’s native species, and they’ve been the targets of numerous government-backed eradication campaigns. But new research suggests that on Australian ISLANDS, these predators help control an even more destructive one: the black rat. As a result, eliminating cats and foxes could actually leave native mammals more vulnerable to predation, competition, and ultimately extinction.
Australia is ground zero for the modern biodiversity crisis. The continent has suffered more than a quarter of all recent mammal extinctions, and many other native species survive only as small populations on one or more of the country’s thousands of islands. While habitat destruction has caused some extinctions, cats, foxes, and rats introduced around 1800 by British sailors have also played a major role, decimating native animals like bilbies and bandicoots—both small, ratlike marsupials found only in Australia.
All of this has given large, nonnative predators like cats and foxes a bad name. “We hate them,” biologist Emily Hanna of the Australian National University in Canberra declared here last month at the International Congress for Conservation Biology…
Cats may try to hide their true feelings, but a recent study found that cats do actually pay attention to their owners, distinguishing them from all other people.
The study, which will be published in the July issue of Animal Cognition, is one of the few to examine the cat/human social dynamic from the feline’s perspective. Cats may not do what we tell them to, but they usually adore their human caretakers…
Mini Wildcats: The Pocket-Sized Predators of the African Cape
These miniature wildcats face the same dangers from habitat loss as their larger cousins.
by Joanna M. Foster
You don’t have to be a crazy cat lady—or man—to love leopards, get choked up over cheetahs or long to see a lion up-close. There’s something transformative about watching a big cat’s muscles ripple under its sleek, high-fashion coat, and even the cockiest modern man draped in technology is reminded of his proper place when a lion roars.
But there aren’t only three magnificent African cats, there are actually ten, although some weigh as little as three pounds and eat more insects than impalas.
Fortunately, for the four species of little cats that call South Africa home, the caracal, serval, african wild cat and black-footed cat, there’s the Cat Conservation Trust, a non-profit group that breeds cats in order to release them back into the wild…
Endangered primates and cats may be hiding out in swamps and mangrove forests
by Jeremy Hance
What happens to animals when their forest is cut down? If they can, they migrate to different forests. But in an age when forests are falling far and fast, many species may have to shift to entirely different environments. A new paper in Folia Primatologica theorizes that some 60 primate species and 20 wild cat species in Asia and Africa may be moving from rainforests to less-impacted environments such as swamp forests, mangroves, and peat forests.
“Where primates and felids face forest habitat disturbance, they may need to shift habitats, diets, activity patterns,” author of the paper Katarzyna Nowak with Princeton University told mongabay.com. “In areas with swamp forests—like areas with hard to reach mountaintops—these taxa can find safety and shelter in the flooded forest, which may be less disturbed than the adjacent upland forest.”…