Evolution can be a hard process to figure out. Rooting out pseudoscience and conjecture from credible science proves difficult. Understanding the biological utility of certain features might take decades to reverse engineer; speculating on direct ancestral lines is equally confounding. Family trees look more like a tangle of roots than the pretty flowers blossoming atop.
Oxford doctoral student Carlos Driscoll took a decade to figure out the ancestral lines of the domesticated house cat. When his data were all in he was shocked: every single cat today derives from one line, Felis silvestris. It appears that the agricultural revolution roughly 11,000 years ago not only changed humanity, but feline life as well.
We often consider domestication a forced process, though it appears cats chose us. If the goal is continuing the genetic line then their success rate is incredible. Today six hundred million cats roam the earth. More cats are born each day in the United States than lions remaining in the wilderness, writes journalist Abigail Tucker, a number she puts at twenty thousand.
This does not bode well for lions, or cheetahs, or panthers, or any of the remaining felines left in the few forests supporting them. House cats are another story. When humans stopped their nomadic chases they formed large-scale farms. Cities started popping up. Cats appear to have said, well, fine, I’ll take this box here provided you also feed me and scratch me when needed, an arrangement that sums up our relationship today.
Yet for a long time humans were meat for cats. Unlike other animals that eat a variety of foods, cats are hypercarnivores. They don’t have the stomach for vegetables. They’ll die if deprived of protein, plenty of it; that’s what nature does to an animal with no predators. Your finicky cat has a genetic history of food snobbery.
As much as cats have taken over the internet with the same voracity they conquered our homes, we’re not always kind to them. Take cat hyperthyroidism, as reported in the NY Times last week. Whereas this disease was unheard of just forty years ago, today roughly 10 percent of senior cats suffer from this disease, as Emily Anthes writes.
A steady drumbeat of research links the strange feline disease to a common class of flame retardants that…
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