Cats' Wild Ancestor

Don't let training problems cause owners to toss out the cat with the litter.

Domestic cats have been traced to a single wild ancestor whose relatives still live in the remote deserts of the Middle East today. A new genetic analysis suggests that the transformation of a vicious predator into the modern-day tabby occurred approximately 10,000 years ago-the same time humans adopted an agricultural lifestyle in the Fertile Crescent. Thus, the first of the friendly cats likely acted as a mouse hunter for grain-storage areas. Until now, scientists knew virtually nothing about the genetic relationships between different types of cats, including wild versus domestic varieties.
House cats often breed with wild species, which has made it difficult for scientists to distinguish between hybrid wild-domestic cats and purely wild or house varieties. The key difference between the two is behavior: domestic cats can live in groups and are generally unafraid of people. Because behavioral analyses of a large and diverse group of cats would be nearly impossible, an international research team turned to genetics. Carlos Driscoll of the National Cancer Institute and his colleagues analyzed genetic material from nearly 1,000 cats, including domestic cats and wild cat subspecies. They found that each wild group represents a subspecies of the wildcat Felis sifaestris. The DNA from domestic cats matched that of the Near Eastern wildcat subspecies Felis sifoestris lybica, which lives in the remote deserts of Israel and Saudi Arabia. (Accessed July 2007 at