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Prehistoric Cats: Your Domestic Cat's Ancestors

By John Platt Jr. March 23, 2019

As natural born hunters, our cats are constantly on the prowl for critters and rodents. If your cat is an outside cat, they’ve likely brought you a present in the form of a dead bird or field mouse. Although we view this as absolutely disgusting and often horrifying, our cats are acknowledging that we seem to be poor hunters. They really want to take care of us, probably because we clean the litter box! Did you know that most cats can’t taste sweetness? Since cats are obligate carnivores, the feline diet has historically been high in protein and fat. Cats had no evolutionary need to taste sugar, and lost the ability to do so! The evolutionary history of the cat is full of interesting cats, living and extinct! Let’s look at your cat’s prehistoric ancestors.

Common Characteristics

Although some of the scientific names in this article may get confusing, each of these cats has a lot in common. In order to be classified as a “cat” all these animals must have specific common features. These include spiny tongues, retractable claws to some extent, and a nose that extends slightly past the lower jaw. In addition, all cats have whiskers above the eyes, on the muzzle, and on the cheeks, but they do not have whiskers below their chins. In addition, their plantar pads (TOE BEANS!!!) always have three lobes. In addition, they have evolved to have bodies fit for short, ambush hunts and stalking rather than prolonged battles. Scientists make evolutionary distinctions between genera and species of cats based on specific evolutionary adaptations such as bone shape and density.

The First Cats (Proailurus and Pseudaelurus)

Cats as we know them likely share a common ancestor that first emerged about 25 million years ago. It’s estimated that this first genus of cats, Proailurus, lived across the Eurasia as matching fossils have been found in Mongolia, Germany, and Spain. They weighed approximately 20 pounds, so they were slightly larger than our domestic house cats today. Proailurus emerged during the Oligocene period in prehistory. This period is noted as a transition period from the prehistoric tropical world often linked with dinosaurs to our more modern ecosystems.

The Oligocene is marked with the expansion of grasslands and savannahs while the tropical rainforests were reduced to the equatorial areas of the globe. Our prehistoric cats were likely similar to modern viverrids (a family of small to medium-sized mammals) in that they were arboreal in nature. This means they hunted from the trees, similar to jaguars today. As the rainforests receded and the grasslands expanded, our furry prehistoric friends likely shed their reliance on trees, and began hunting in the tall grass. The stealth provided by the tall grass matched the cat’s retained ability to climb trees, which made it the perfect hunter in this new ecosystem.

Proailurus would be succeeded in evolution by the genus Pseudaelurus. Fossil evidence suggests that the evolutionary distinction between Proailurus and Pseudaelurus first began in Eurasia, but Pseudaelurus was the first cat to cross the Bering Land Bridge and reach North America. These cats first emerged approximately 20 million years ago, lasting until approximately 8 million years ago. One interesting fact about Pseudaelurus is that its appearance in North America ended a time period of 7 million years that scientists refer to as the “cat gap.” Although its cause is debated, the cat gap was a period in which few or no cats lived in North America. Scientists can infer this due to the lack of fossil evidence of cats from this time period.

Because the Pseudaelurus species were abundant in number for approximately 12 million years, they varied in size and shape. The majority of Pseudaelurus species were similar in size or a bit larger than our common house cats, but some notable species grew to the size of our “big cats.” These cats emerged during the Miocene, the same time period that humans would diverge from chimpanzees. Another transitionary era, the Miocene is characterized as the time period between the warm Oligocene and the cool Pliocene. The environment and climate were incredibly similar to that of the Oligocene, thus we should expect the cats of the time period to be expanding as rapidly as Proailurus had. Like Proailurus, Pseudaelurus had retractable claws to some extent, which allowed them to safely climb trees and efficiently hunt prey. Although Pseudaelurus is a direct descendant of Proailurus, it is often noted as being the starting point for most major cat breeds today. However, it is also the evolutionary parent of a cat famed in prehistory, the saber-toothed cat.

Saber-toothed Felines (Machairodontinae)

Machairodontinae is another entirely extinct classification of cats that are distant relatives of your little furball at home. This classification of cats is named with the Greek word for dagger, machaira. This family of cats is classified together for their distinctly large maxillary canines, giving them the common name saber-toothed cats. Although many like to refer to the most famous species, Smilodon, as a saber-toothed tiger, it is not closely related to the tigers we know today.

Although these cats are infamous for their enormous teeth, their jaw strength was remarkably weak. Reconstructions have allowed scientists to agree that their strength came from their neck muscles which pushed the jaws down into prey, and their bite strength was likely a third of that of a modern lion. In addition, analysis of the hyoid bones of some Machairodonts like the Smilodon show that they likely could have roared like their modern descendants.

The exact reasoning behind the evolutionary adaptation that is the saber-tooth, or the extended maxillary canine, is still up in the air. Most scientists reject that it was for stabbing, because the shape of the mandible would have been an impediment to stabbing, and the fact that the teeth would have likely broken on hard bone. Some think it possibly could have been a sexual characteristic designed to attract mates similar to a lion’s mane. Most believe that if the neck-biting technique used by modern cats had been utilized by Machairodonts, their enlarged teeth would have been perfect for damaging the windpipe. Others believe that the teeth would have been good for shearing the carcass of an already dead animal, making them scavengers rather than predators.

Felis and the Domestic House Cat

Scientists agree that most modern cat species only evolved from their ancestors in the last 1 million years. This means that the diversity in cats is higher than ever before, and that the prehistoric cats were more like one another than a house cat is similar to a tiger today. The genus of cats we are most concerned with as pet owners is Felis. These cats include the house cat, Chinese mountain cat, Jungle cat, and the Black-footed cat.  The domestic cat is unlike the rest of these cats, because its evolution is almost strictly because of artificial selection by humans. All other cat species evolve to fit the environment they belong in naturally, while humans pick and choose which cats breed and which cats do not.

The domestication of the house cat has led to numerous breeds of cats emerging, each artificially bred for certain characteristics. However, as a species, domestic cats still share some similarities like their size, claws, eyes, and skull shape. It is likely that the domestic house cat was preadapted to life with humans. Before domestication, the cats that would be taken in by people across the globe were already incredibly curious, small, social, and highly intelligent. It can be inferred that your pet cat’s connection to its prehistoric ancestors is quite strong!

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