“The Evolution of Cats” by Misty Smith. Originally published on July 5, 2015, for BIO 101 at the University of Phoenix.
The Evolution of Cats
The common housecat is the descendant of its wild Middle Eastern ancestor Felis Sylvestris (Smithsonian, 2007). “A third of American households have feline members, and more than 600 million cats live among humans worldwide” (Scientific American, 2009). However, how did a cat, a wild animal, evolve to survive as a domesticated pet or wild animal?
Cats are one animal that, although domesticated, still maintain much of their primal instincts and characteristics. Therefore, if a housecat is returned to the wild, the cat will most likely flourish without human dependency. In figure 1 we can see the basic internal anatomy of a house cat from the lungs to the heart; looking at the diagram shows us domesticated cats’ organs mirror their wild counterparts perfectly. One noticeable difference in the physiology of wild cats versus domestic cats can be seen in their size; for example, most domesticated house cats are small in stature, whereas most wild cats (such as lions and tigers) are large in stature.
In outer appearance, both male and female housecats are very similar. However, males sometimes tend to be slightly larger than females. “Cats walk on their toes and have soft pads on the toes and feet which help to reduce sound when stalking, as well as protecting the underlying bones from a concussion during running and jumping” (Provet Health Care, 1999). The silence in their ability to move is an evolutionary response to ensure survival, both in hunting and from being hunted as prey. Furthermore, a cat’s stomach and digestive system are designed to eat meat and therefore a cat can never survive on a vegetarian diet (Provet Health Care, 1999).
Cats, both domesticated and wild, are very social creatures. “Cats can express friendly, fearful, and aggressive emotions using vocalization and body posture” (Yeon, Kim, & Park, 2011). The larynx of a cat is used to produce sound. In the wild, a cat uses their growls to ward off potential predators. However, in captivity, house cats have evolved their sounds to primarily communicate their needs, likes, and dislikes to their owners. For example, this student owns a domesticated house cat. She uses her vocalization in a combination of purrs (to show that she’s happy), growls (to show that she’s upset), and meows (to indicate her need for food or water.) However, she also shows her primal instincts by making clicking noises while staring out of the windows at birds.
“Cats have evolved with eyes that protrude forwards from the head giving them good forward and sideways vision” (Provet Health Care, 1999). The cat’s retina is located at the back of the eye and reflects light from the tapetum lucidum. Furthermore, the retina consists of a large number of celled called “rods”, and in return, a cat has excellent vision in dim light. The vision of the cat enables them to hunt around both dusk and dawn and gives them a clear advantage over their prey. Domesticated cats still feel the need to hunt prey; therefore, they will attack and kill rodents and insects that may invade your home.
House Cats often scratch on items or leave their scents around their owners’ home. This is how a cat not only marks their territory but how they attract mates. In the wild cats can “smell” other cats’ markings as clear warnings to stay away or to come to mate. This marking is part of the evolutionary traits of a cat that domesticated cats have retained. “By urine marking, a cat tells other cats of his presence and makes a statement about such things as what piece of property is his, how long ago he was in the area and, over time, when other cats can expect him to return” (ASPCA, 2015). Beside urine, evolution has given cats the ability to leave their scents by the glands in their face.
In conclusion, unlike other animals who seem to lose their ability to live in the wild after confinement (like elephants in a zoo) cats keep their evolutionary traits that help them survive in the wild. Evolution has provided cats with the ability to see in dim light, walk with utmost quietness, and live off a diet of meat. Humans have kept cats as their companions for thousands of years; however, a cat can return to the wild without much effort because their bodies and instincts are built for it. For example, “cats were kept on ships to control the rodent population and as a result, the seafaring explorers from Europe carried and introduced domesticated cats all over the world” (Provet Health Care, 1999).
ASPCA. (2015). Urine Marking in Cats. Retrieved from http://www.aspca.org/pet-care/virtual- pet-behaviorist/cat-behavior/urine-marking-cats
Figure 1 [Online Image]. (2013). Retrieved from http://blogs.hightechhigh.org/blairsseniorclass/files/2013/05/cat-spleen.jpg
Provet Health Care. (1999). THE CAT THROUGH EVOLUTION. Retrieved from http://www.provet.co.uk/cats/evolution%20of%20the%20cat.htm
Scientific American. (2009). The Evolution of House Cats. Retrieved from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-taming-of-the-cat/
Smithsonian. (2007). Retrieved from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/a-brief-history-of- house-cats-158390681/?no-ist
Yeon, S.C., Kim, Y.K., & Park, S.J. (2011, June). Differences between vocalization evoked by social stimuli in feral cats and house cats. Behavioural Processes, 87(2), 183–189. doi:10.1016/j.beproc.2011.03.003