WASHINGTON – Garfield, Morris and the Aristocats get the fame, but look to the origins of today's furry felines and you find "lybica," a Middle Eastern wildcat.
Domestic cats can be traced to wild progenitors that interbred well over 100,000 years ago, new research indicates.
"House cats — which includes fancy breeds and feral cats — those cats all form a genetic group that is virtually indistinguishable from ones in the Middle East," said Stephen J. O'Brien of the National Cancer Institute.
"So, domestication, for sure, took place in the Middle East where those cats live today," added O'Brien, co-author of a paper appearing in this week's online edition of the journal Science.
Carlos Driscoll, of Oxford University and NCI, and an international team of researchers studied the origins of those loving and aloof, graceful and finicky pets that entertain or supervise millions of homes.
It's serious research, because cats are a model for some human genetic diseases, such as polycystic kidney disease and retinal atrophy, Driscoll explained in a telephone interview. In addition, the work is expected to assist in conservation efforts for wild cats, he said.
Cats' ancestry was traced to five types of wild cats, but that doesn't mean they were domesticated five times, Driscoll said.
Rather, these five types managed to interbreed at various times, with the result being Felis silvestris lybica, which appears to be the ancestor of modern house cats.
"This was an amazing experiment when animals came out of the wild," O'Brien said. "Cats are known for their ferocious, deadly nature," O'Brien said, so this is an extraordinary change for them.
Cats may have been domesticated once or many times, he said, adding that the most likely case is they were domesticated once and other wild cats bred with the domesticated ones.
"I wasn't there, but all the data supports that," he said.
The researchers found wild cats, with mitochondrial DNA identical to domestic cats, in Israel, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
By studying the mitochondrial DNA of 979 domestic and wild cats from Europe, Asia and Africa the researchers concluded that the origins of the species — what O'Brien calls a feline Adam and Eve — developed between 130,000 and 160,000 years ago.
Mitochondrial DNA is almost always passed down intact from mother to child. It mutates at a slow but consistent rate, allowing scientists to estimate the age of each mutation.
Domestication of cats began as long as 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, O'Brien said, as the earliest farmers domesticated grains and cereal. As that occurred, local wild cats adapted to hunting rodents in the grain and developed a relationship with humans.
The earliest archaeological evidence of cats and humans in association dates to 9,500 years ago in Cyprus.
Joan Miller, chair of outreach for The Cat Fanciers' Association, based in San Diego, Calif., said the most interesting aspect of the research "is the finding that some wild cats and domestic cats from the Near East were distinct from the other Felis silvestris subspecies long associated with domestic cat origins."
"Since the DNA samples were taken from cats in remote desert areas there would be less likelihood of hybridization occurring," she said. "I would like to know more about these cats."
"We have evidence of cat domestication by the Egyptians because of their prolific artwork. It would be interesting to try to investigate early artwork from Israel, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain or Saudi Arabia," added Miller, who was not part of the research group.
Other wild cats in the study included the European wildcat, Felis silvestris silvestris; Central Asian wildcat, F. s. ornata; sub-Saharan African wildcat, F. s. cafra; and the Chinese desert cat, F. s. bieti.
The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health.