SCIENCE

US researchers find DNA of domestic cats closely related to wild felines

Researchers find the DNA of the house cat is not far removed from that of its wild relatives

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 November, 2014, 4:29am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 November, 2014, 4:29am
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It may not surprise cat owners, but researchers have discovered that the genome of the domestic tabby differs only slightly from that of wild cats.

In other words, after 9,000 years of living alongside humans, the house cat remains only semi-domesticated.

After comparing the genome of an Abyssinian cat named Cinnamon to those of humans, tigers, cows, dogs and another white-pawed cat breed known as the Birman, researchers discovered that cats retain many of the hunting, sensory and digestive traits that are a link to their wild relatives.

Where researchers did find a signal for human influence on cat evolution, however, was in fur colour and pattern, as well as a set of genes that are thought to be associated with tameness.

“We believe we have created the first preliminary evidence that depicts domestic cats as not that far removed from wild cat populations,” said senior author Wes Warren, an associate professor of genomics at the Genome Institute at Washington University in St Louis, in the United States.

Unlike dogs, which some researchers say began their association with humans 30,000 years ago, archaeological evidence suggests cats first entered our living space more recently, when we began to grow crops.

Researchers think early farmers welcomed the felines due to their ability to hunt grain-eating rodents.

Farmers also rewarded the efficient rodent slayers with extra bits of food, researchers said.

Yet it’s only in the past 200 years that humans have placed intense selection pressure on cats, producing up to 40 different breeds, Warren said.

Warren and his colleagues said that this relatively short period of breeding was partly responsible for the modest influence domestication has had on the evolution of Felis silvestris catus. However, it was not the only reason.

“Most importantly, some continue to interbreed with wild cat populations,” Warren said.

When examining the cat’s genetic make-up, the researchers found that the animals retained qualities of wild hyper-carnivores, which are hunters that eat meat almost exclusively.

“Carnivores are endowed with extremely acute sensory adaptations, allowing them to effectively locate potential prey before being discovered,” the authors wrote.

“Within carnivores, cats have the broadest hearing range, allowing them to detect both ultrasonic communication by prey as well as their movement.”

In addition to retaining eyesight that enables them to hunt in low-light conditions, cats also are able to digest high-protein, high-fat diets.