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Kitty’s family tree analyzed

June 28, 2007
Courtesy Science
and World Science staff

House­cats around the world can now trace their an­ces­try back to the Near East­ern wild­cat, Fe­lis sil­vestris ly­bica, re­search­ers say af­ter a new DNA anal­y­sis.

A wild­cat, Fe­lis sil­vestris ly­bica, which was trapped as part of the re­search in­to the or­i­gin of cat do­mes­ti­ca­tion. (Im­age © Sci­ence)


Do­mes­tic cats come from a “found­er” pop­u­la­t­ion of five or more fe­lines that were do­mes­ti­cat­ed in the Fer­tile Cres­cent zone of the Near East probably some­time over 9,000 years ago, they said.

These cats would have come from a line­age that split off from F. s. ly­bica around 107,000 to 155,000 years ago. 

They likely be­gan their as­socia­t­ion with hu­mans by “feed­ing on ro­dent pests in­fest­ing grain stores of the first farm­ers,” wrote the re­search­ers, re­port­ing their find­ings in the June 29 is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Sci­ence.

The sci­en­tists, Car­los Dris­coll of the Un­ivers­ity of Ox­ford, U.K. and col­leagues stud­ied ev­o­lu­tion­ary rela­t­ion­ships among do­mes­tic cats and the wild cat sub­spe­cies: the Eu­ro­pe­an wild­cat, the Near East­ern wild­cat, the Cen­tral Asian wild­cat, the south­ern Af­ri­can wild­cat, and the Chin­ese des­ert cat. 

A domesticated cat. 


Wild and do­mes­tic cats have of­ten in­ter­bred so closely that it’s al­most im­pos­si­ble to tell the two apart, they not­ed. 

The do­mes­tic cat is some­times con­sid­ered a sub­spe­cies of its own, F. s. catus, though tech­nic­ally “do­mes­tic cat” can mean any do­mes­ti­cat­ed fe­line.

Us­ing ge­net­ic ma­te­ri­al from 979 cats, Dris­coll and col­leagues an­a­lyzed the varia­t­ion among DNA se­quences at a va­ri­e­ty of “mark­er” spots with­in the genomes, to de­ter­mine which line­ages were most closely re­lat­ed. 

They found that each of the sub­spe­cies as well as do­mes­tic cats fell in­to a dis­tinct, ge­net­ic­ally re­lat­ed group, or “clade.” 

One clade in­clud­ed do­mes­tic cats and some wild­cats from the Mid­dle East, sug­gest­ing that this group stems from the an­ces­tral found­er popula­t­ion of all do­mes­tic cats, they wrote.


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Housecats around the world can now trace their ancestry back to the Near Eastern wildcat, Felis silvestris lybica, researchers say after a new DNA analysis. Domestic cats come from a “founder” population of five or more felines that were probably domesticated in the Fertile Crescent zone of the Near East sometime over 9,000 years ago, they said. These cats would have come from a lineage that split off from F. s. lybica around 107,000 to 155,000 years ago. They began their association with humans by “feeding on rodent pests infesting grain stores of the first farmers,” wrote the researchers, reporting their findings in the June 29 issue of the research journal Science. The scientists, Carlos Driscoll of the University of Oxford, U.K. and colleagues studied evolutionary relationships among domestic cats and the wild cat subspecies: the European wildcat, the Near Eastern wildcat, the Central Asian wildcat, the southern African wildcat, and the Chinese desert cat. Wild and domestic cats have often interbred so closely that it’s almost impossible to tell the two apart, they noted. The domestic cat is sometimes considered a subspecies of its own, F. s. catus, though technically “domestic cat” can mean any domesticated feline. Using genetic material from 979 cats, Driscoll and colleagues analyzed the variation among DNA sequences at a variety of “marker” spots within the genomes, to determine which lineages were most closely related. They found that each of the subspecies as well as domestic cats fell into a distinct, genetically related group, or “clade.” One clade included domestic cats and some wildcats from the Middle East, suggesting that this group stems from the ancestral founder population of all domestic cats, they said.