Often in the mood for pampering, always there to remind you when it’s time for food, and occasionally on guard duty to defend your home from ‘alien invaders’, the common, household cat is considered a perfect pet companion. However, the most innocuous of felines, which has lived among men for thousands of years, still continues to hold on to a characteristic from its untamed past: its wild nature.
A key aspect of a cat’s evolution, from savagery through to domestication, has been highlighted by recent research into a cat’s DNA by researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
The influence of man on the evolution of the cat
To understand how, and to what extent, its proximity to man has affected the nature of the cat; researchers conducting the study compared the genomes of seven breeds of domestic cat and two breeds of wildcat. The specific parts of the genome sequenced and analysed in this comparison were the ones responsible for behavioural characteristics that have been linked to the evolution of tameness, such as memory, reward seeking, and fear conditioning (i.e. curbing a cat’s natural ‘fight or flight’ response when faced with unfamiliar people or situations, thereby taming the cat’s wild nature).
According to geneticist Wes Warren, co-author of the study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, the characteristics of the Felis silvestris catus (the domestic cat) have changed over the course of the 9,000 years that it has lived with man. Professor Warren, explained: “Humans most likely welcomed cats because they controlled rodents that consumed their grain harvests. We hypothesised that humans would offer cats food as a reward to stick around.”
This compromise between man and cat appears to have marked the beginning of real evolutionary change for these fascinating creatures, resulting in a noticeable change in their DNA.
The tenacity of a cat’s wild nature
Yet, despite this genetic modification derived from human domestication, the domestic cat still remains wild enough at heart to be considered semi-domesticated at best, the researchers surmised: “We believe we have created the first preliminary evidence that depicts domestic cats as not that far removed from wildcat populations,” Professor Warren added. Because of the researchers’ conclusions, we must be mindful to the nature of our cats: because in them, lying dormant remains part of nature as mysterious as it is wild.