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August 12, 2015

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Study: cat competition has wreaked havoc on dog family for ages

Aug. 12, 2015
Courtesy of the University of Gothenburg
and World Science staff

Is this why dogs hate cats? 

Maybe not—but a new study finds that the ri­val­ry has been pro­foundly deadly for mil­li­ons of years, with dogs, es­pe­cial­ly, get­ting the short end of the stick.

Cats and their close rel­a­tives have of­ten beat out spe­cies with­in the dog family in the cease­less com­pe­ti­tion for food, the study finds. In the pro­cess, it con­cludes, as many as 40 of the spe­cies re­lat­ed to dogs were pushed to ex­tinc­tion. The cat family on the oth­er hand got through rel­a­tively un­scathed.

The re­search finds that com­pe­ti­tion over­all played a larg­er role in the ev­o­lu­tion of the dog fam­i­ly—wolves, fox­es, and their rel­a­tives—than cli­mate change, nor­mally an over­rid­ing fac­tor.

“We usu­ally ex­pect cli­mate changes to play an over­whelm­ing role in the ev­o­lu­tion of bio­di­vers­ity. In­stead, com­pe­ti­tion among dif­fer­ent car­ni­vore spe­cies proved to be even more im­por­tant for canids,” the dog fam­i­ly, said Daniele Sil­ve­stro of the Un­ivers­ity of Goth­en­burg in Swe­den, lead au­thor of a re­port on the find­ings.

Sil­ve­stro and col­leagues an­a­lyzed over 2000 fos­sils and found that the ar­ri­val of the cat family to North Amer­i­ca from Asia had a deadly im­pact on the di­vers­ity of the dog fam­i­ly. The re­search is re­ported this week in the jour­nal Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­tio­n­al Aca­de­my of Sci­en­ces.

The dog family orig­i­nat­ed in North Amer­i­ca about 40 mil­lion of years ago and reached a max­i­mum di­vers­ity around 22 mil­lion of years ago, when more than 30 spe­cies in­hab­it­ed the con­ti­nent, ac­cord­ing to the sci­en­tists. To­day, only nine spe­cies of the dog family live in North Amer­i­ca.

Over eons, they grad­u­ally grew larg­er and spe­cial­ized to be­come large preda­tors. Some of them ex­ceeded 30 Kg (66 pounds) and were among the larg­est car­ni­vores in North Amer­i­ca. Al­though sev­er­al large car­ni­vores to­day face a high­er ex­tinc­tion risk than smaller spe­cies, the au­thors of the study found no ev­i­dence of a si­m­i­lar pat­tern in an­cient canid spe­cies.

But car­ni­vores’ ev­o­lu­tion­ary suc­cess is in­evitably tied to their abil­ity to get food. The lim­it­ed amount of prey forc­es tough com­pe­ti­tion among car­ni­vores rang­ing the same ar­ea, Sil­ve­stro and col­leagues note. For in­stance Af­ri­can car­ni­vores such as wild dogs, hye­nas, li­ons and oth­er fe­lids (mem­bers of the cat fam­ily) are con­stantly com­pet­ing with each oth­er for food. 

North Amer­i­can car­ni­vores in the past might have fol­lowed si­m­i­lar dy­nam­ics and much of the com­pe­ti­tion is found among spe­cies of the dog family and from an­cient fe­lids and dogs, the scientists say.

In­ter­est­ing­ly, while fe­lids ap­peared to have a strongly neg­a­tive im­pact on the sur­viv­al of an­cient dogs, the op­po­site is­n’t true, the study found. This sug­gests that fe­lids were more ef­fi­cient preda­tors than most of the ex­tinct spe­cies in the dog fam­i­ly.


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Is this why dogs hate cats? Perhaps not—but a new study finds that the rivalry has been profoundly deadly for millions of years, with dogs, especially, getting the short end of the stick. Cats and their close relatives have often beat out species within the dog family in the ceaseless competition for food, the study finds. In the process, it concludes, as many as 40 of the species related to dogs were pushed to extinction. The cat family on the other hand got through relatively unscathed. The research finds that competition overall played a larger role in the evolution of the dog family—wolves, foxes, and their relatives—than climate change, normally an overriding factor. “We usually expect climate changes to play an overwhelming role in the evolution of biodiversity. Instead, competition among different carnivore species proved to be even more important for canids,” the dog family, said Daniele Silvestro of the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, lead author of a report on the findings. Silvestro and colleagues analyzed over 2000 fossils and found that the arrival of the cat family to North America from Asia had a deadly impact on the diversity of the dog family. The research is reported this week in the journal PNAS. The dog family originated in North America about 40 million of years ago and reached a maximum diversity around 22 million of years ago, when more than 30 species inhabited the continent, according to the scientists. Today, only nine species of the dog family live in North America. Over eons, they gradually grew larger and specialized to become large predators. Some of them exceeded 30 Kg (66 pounds) and were among the largest carnivores in North America. Although several large carnivores today face a higher extinction risk than smaller species, the authors of the study found no evidence of a similar pattern in ancient canid species. But carnivores’ evolutionary success is inevitably tied to their ability to get food. The limited amount of prey forces tough competition among carnivores in the same area, Silvestro and colleagues note. For instance African carnivores such as wild dogs, hyenas, lions and other felids are constantly competing with each other for food. North American carnivores in the past might have followed similar dynamics and much of the competition is found among species of the dog family and from ancient felids and dogs. Interestingly, while felids appeared to have a strongly negative impact on the survival of ancient dogs, the opposite isn’t true, the study found. This suggests that felids were more efficient predators than most of the extinct species in the dog family.