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Cats certainly carry themselves with an air of superiority, but are these curious, natural hunters really related to the king of the jungle? 

Pet cats (known scientifically as Felis Catus) are one of the most recently evolved species within the Felidae or ‘cat’ family, which is split into three broad categories:

  • Panthera (cats that roar, such as lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars)
  • Acinonyx (the Cheetah)
  • Felis (all other ‘small’ cats)

However, scientists are continually building upon their theories of the Felidae family because of the undeniable similarities across the family, which makes them very difficult to distinguish between – for example, the skull of a tiger looks extremely similar to that of a lion, and vice versa.

Therefore, as scientists seek to acquire a deeper knowledge of the Felidae family, the classifications are likely to be split further, and recent investigations have suggested up to eight potential lineages, rather than three. 

cat with the shadow of a lion

The Felidae family 

Our domesticated cats today still display many traits of their ancestors: such as a keen sense of hearing, sight, and smell.

The similarities in anatomical characteristics across the 37 recognized species of the Felidae family, such as the rounded head, suggest that they all evolved from a common ancestor found 10-12 million years ago in Asia.

Around 3 million years ago a myriad of cat species roamed the earth, populating most regions other than the Arctic, Antarctic, and Australia. 

Changes in sea level triggered different climate conditions which would see the Felidae species migrate from one place to another, or remain in a specific location if sea levels were high. 

The widespread migration of these wild cats was probably influenced by their instinct to disperse and seek new territory, as well as follow prey. 

Domestication 

Ancient fossil records indicate the co-existence of cats and humans thousands of years back, with evidence suggesting that the Egyptians were the first to attempt to “tame” or “domesticate” cats approximately 3,600 years ago.

Skulls of the Felis silvestris lybica (the African wildcat) were identified in Egyptian cat burial grounds, and it is this species which is thought to be the major ancestor of the modern domesticated cat of today. 

But more recent evidence has found that the domestication of cats probably occurred even earlier than this and can be traced back to the Middle East about 10,000 years ago, long before Egyptians decided to tame felines.

 The earliest evidence of domestication comes from a cat who was buried with its owner in Cyprus, about 9,500 years ago, and because there were no native cats in Cyprus at this time it is thought that domestication began sometime before this burial. 

Relation to wild cats 

Recent research and genetic analysis have indicated that the DNA of modern-day pet cats is almost identical to the DNA of the Felis silvestris lybica.

Even more surprisingly – the DNA of the African wildcat — which was collected from remote deserts in Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia as part of a study — was virtually indistinguishable from the DNA of domesticated cats, clearly showing that it is this species that gave rise to the pet felines we know and love today. 

The domestic cat was first classified as Felis catus in 1758 by Carolus Linnaeus, however, more recent studies suggest that the domestic cat should be regarded as a subspecies of the Wildcat – Felis silvestris catus – which is a term occasionally used by some experts. 

Relation to lions 

However, whilst modern-day domestic cats are descended from smaller breeds of wild cats, they share several similarities with larger wild cats, also.

In 2015, researchers from the Bronx Zoo and the University of Edinburgh made several fascinating comparisons between the domestic cat and the Scottish wildcat (Felis silvestris grampia), clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa), and snow leopard (Panthera uncia), as well as the almighty African Lion (Panthera leo). 

The study assigned each species a personality type from the Five-Factor model, which the researchers adapted for feline, rather than human, traits.

The domestic cat demonstrated the same dominance, impulsiveness, and neuroticism seen in the African lion, suggesting they are simply a miniature version with an equally big personality. 

Recent comparisons between the genomes of big cats have also proven that the tiger shares 96% of its genes with domesticated cats.

Similarities between big cats and small cats 

  1. House cats ‘scent-mark’ just like big cats – this is their way of marking their territory 
  2. They both also like to scratch things to leave their mark – (literally!) 
  3. Cats are nocturnal creatures so they like to hunt at night. They also have amazing night vision and an ability to hear noises at high frequencies, which gives them a distinct advantage over their prey.
  4. Domestic cats stalk and kill their prey in a similar manner to wildcats: both pounce at top speed, use their claws to hold their prey down, and seal the deal with a swift bite to the vertebra. 
  5. Just like big cats and wild cats, the common house cat is a carnivore and needs meat to survive 
  6. All species of cat have retractable claws, apart from the cheetah 
  7. All cats have four toes on their hind feet and five toes on their front feet
  8. All cats walk on their toes and have soft padding to reduce the noise made by walking 

Final Verdict 

All species of cats are descended from a common ancestor, and this explains the similar appearance they possess, regardless of their different sizes, colors, and coats. 

The modern domestic cat is a subspecies of the wild cat, explaining the natural hunting instincts of the modern house cat and their territorial natures.

While domestic cats are not directly related to bigger wild cats such as tigers and lions, they do share indisputable similarities in their personalities, particularly tigers and domestic cats, who share 96% of their genes. 

There are plenty of similarities that can be drawn between your pet cat and the ferocious lions you see in wildlife documentaries, but while your pet cat will have no issue mercilessly pouncing on a bird in your garden, you can rest assured it doesn’t quite possess the killing capabilities of the big cats. 

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