fact: how cats went from wild animals to internet stars

I like to back up my fiction with some science fact, so here is some new cat science (the best kind).

How did cats go from wild animals to internet stars? A new study published in Nature Ecology & Evolution suggests that kitties held out for as long as they could.

Scientists analysed mitochondrial DNA from the bones and teeth of 200 ancient cat remains found across Europe, Africa and the Middle East trying to understand when cats started taking over the world and snuggling their way into our hearts.

Traditional Cat Lore states that 9,000 years ago wild cats in the Fertile Crescent (stretching from modern day Northern Egypt up to Southern Turkey and across to the edge of Iran) befriended farmers because they had an inexhaustible supply of delicious rodents +/- other snacks. And the farmers said, “Oh wild beasts, you are welcome in my humble abode if you eat my vermin and don’t bite me. Oh and why don’t you come with me on my ship while I conquer far-reaching nations?”

It turns out that it may have been a little more complicated than that.

While some wild cats may have accompanied humans up into Europe as early as 7,000 BC, the domestic cats we now cuddle on our laps at night didn’t start taking over the world until quite a bit later. By studying changes (called single nucleotide polymorphisms or SNPs) in the sequence of ancient cat mitochondrial DNA, scientists found that all domestic cats come from just one subspecies of wild cat – Felis silvestris lybica. These cats first appeared in Egypt and didn’t move up into Europe until around 4,400BC. They didn’t move north of the Alps until the Roman conquest and didn’t spread out of the Roman-controlled regions of Europe until after 200AD.

Domestic cats still look like wild cats except for coat colour. All wild cats have tabby-like striped markings. A lot of domestic cats don’t. Those who have blotchy coats also have a single mutation in their transmembrane aminopeptidase Q (Taqpep) gene. This mutation didn’t occur until the middle ages so the authors of this paper believe that cats weren’t truly domesticated until that time period – over 10,000 years later than we thought.

But we got them in the end. Or did they get us?

The scientific paper (free and open access): Ottoni et al, The palaeogenetics of cat dispersal in the ancient world. Nature Ecology and Evolution. 2017.

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