A Cat and Mouse Game?

Written by Science Knowledge on 4:47 PM

With the geography and an approximate age of the initial phases of cat domestication established, we could begin to revisit the old question of why cats and humans ever developed a special relationship. Cats in general are unlikely candidates for domestication. The ancestors of most domesticated animals lived in herds or packs with clear dominance hierarchies. (Humans unwittingly took advantage of this structure by supplanting the alpha individual, thus facilitating control of entire cohesive groups.) These herd animals were already accustomed to living cheek by jowl, so provided that food and shelter were plentiful, they adapted easily to confinement.

Cats, in contrast, are solitary hunters that defend their home ranges fiercely from other cats of the same sex (the pride-living lions are the exception to this rule). Moreover, whereas most domesticates feed on widely available plant foods, cats are obligate carnivores, meaning they have a limited ability to digest anything but meat—a far rarer menu item. In fact, they have lost the ability to taste sweet carbohydrates altogether. And as to utility to humans, let us just say cats do not take instruction well. Such attributes suggest that whereas other domesticates were recruited from the wild by humans who bred them for specific tasks, cats most likely chose to live among humans because of opportunities they found for themselves.

Early settlements in the Fertile Crescent between 9,000 and 10,000 years ago, during the Neolithic period, created a completely new environment for any wild animals that were sufficiently flexible and inquisitive (or scared and hungry) to exploit it. The house mouse, Musmusculus domesticus, was one such creature. Archaeologists have found remains of this rodent, which originated in the Indian subcontinent, among the first human stores of wild grain from Israel, which date to around 10,000 years ago. The house mice could not compete well with the local wild mice outside, but by moving into people’s homes and silos, they thrived.

It is almost certainly the case that these house mice attracted cats. But the trash heaps on the outskirts of town were probably just as great a draw, providing year-round pickings for those felines resourceful enough to seek them out. Both these food sources would have encouraged cats to adapt to living with people; in the lingo of evolutionary biology, natural selection favored those cats that were able to cohabitate with humans and thereby gain access to the trash and mice.

Over time, wildcats more tolerant of living in human-dominated environments began to proliferate in villages throughout the Fertile Crescent. Selection in this new niche would have been principally for tameness, but competition among cats would also have continued to influence their evolution and limit how pliant they became. Because these proto–domestic cats were undoubtedly mostly left to fend for themselves, their hunting and scavenging skills remained sharp. Even today most domesticated cats are free agents that can easily survive independently of humans, as evinced by the plethora of feral cats in cities, towns and countrysides the world over.

Considering that small cats do little obvious harm, people probably did not mind their company. They might have even encouraged the cats to stick around when they saw them dispatching mice and snakes. Cats may have held other appeal, too. Some experts speculate that wildcats just so happened to possess features that might have preadapted them to developing a relationship with people. In particular, these cats have “cute” features—large eyes, a snub face and a high, round forehead, among others—that are known to elicit nurturing from humans. In all likelihood, then, some people took kittens home simply because they found them adorable and tamed them, giving cats a first foothold at the human hearth.

Why was F. s. lybica the only subspecies of wildcat to be domesticated? Anecdotal evidence suggests that certain other subspecies, such as the European wildcat and the Chinese mountain cat, are less tolerant of people. If so, this trait alone could have precluded their adoption into homes. The friendlier southern African and Central Asian wildcats, on the other hand, might very well have become domesticated under the right conditions. But F. s. lybica had the advantage of a head start by virtue of its proximity to the first settlements. As agriculture spread out from the Fertile Crescent, so, too, did the tame scions of F. s. lybica, filling the same niche in each region they entered—and effectively shutting the door on local wildcat populations. Had domestic cats from the Near East never arrived in Africa or Asia, perhaps the indigenous wildcats in those regions would have been drawn to homes and villages as urban civilizations developed.

Source of Information : Scientific American(2009-06)

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In its broadest sense, science (from the Latin scientia, meaning "knowledge") refers to any systematic knowledge or practice. In its more usual restricted sense, science refers to a system of acquiring knowledge based on scientific method, as well as to the organized body of knowledge gained through such research.

Fields of science are commonly classified along two major lines: natural sciences, which study natural phenomena (including biological life), and social sciences, which study human behavior and societies. These groupings are empirical sciences, which means the knowledge must be based on observable phenomena and capable of being experimented for its validity by other researchers working under the same conditions.


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