Dogs don’t look like they evolved from wolves (though they did). Cats still closely resemble their African wildcat ancestor both in form and behavior.
First, let’s meet the wildcat.
In this cute little video, look carefully for the only two clues that prove Sid and Louise here are true African wildcats, not domestic cats–the reddish-brown fur behind their ears and their very long legs (hard to see because both cats keep their “elbows” bent; wait until around 5:35, when one of them walks past the camera like a cheetah–the typical African wildcat walk is something shorter-legged domestic cats can’t do).
Besides the physical resemblance and a shared taste for rodents, both African wildcats and domestic cats:
- Are widespread and can adapt to different habitats.
- Supplement their main diet with other prey items
- Are solitary and, unlike lions or cheetah males, don’t cooperate during a hunt.
- Spray urine.
- Divide up their territory the same way: females base theirs on food, while a male wildcat includes as many females as possible in his territory.
- Are born blind and helpless, though their developmental milestones may be a little different (at least for captive African wildcats–it’s hard to study this in the wild)
- Captive female wildcats sometimes bring food for a nursing mother, just as domestic cats will occasionally.
- Interbreed. Wildcat/domestic cat hybridization is a serious conservation concern in some regions, like Scotland, but thus far it seems to be limited in the Kalahari.
Unlike their relative, the European wildcat (F. s. silvestris), African wildcats will sometimes approach human settlements. But they never do something that is very common among feral domestic cats–form colonies.
Increased tolerance of its own kind is one of the few permanent marks that domestication has left on our cats to distinguish them, even when they go feral, from their beautiful but wild African ancestor.
Domestication has affected dogs much more strongly.
Dogs and cats
Wolves are sociable. So are dogs. So why aren’t there more feral dog packs?
Apparently we “broke” their pack behavior somehow by stepping in as a substitute pack leader during domestication. (With cats, it was more a combination of “yes, you may hunt here” and blatant bribery.)
Now feral dogs live in groups of breeding pairs, with membership in the group constantly changing. They no longer hunt as a functional pack. Also, feral puppies aren’t taught to hunt the way wolf cubs are, and the adults have tragically poor parenting skills.
Dogs have been domesticated at least 9,000 thousand years longer than cats, and it shows. Besides the loss of pack behavior away from us, they now have fewer developmental stages between puppy and adult. Even as an adult, a dog’s face is more like a juvenile wolf’s face, with a shorter mandible, steeper forehead, and smaller molars.
This process of juvenilization in domestic animals is called neoteny.
Of course, modern dogs come with a variety of looks, because people have developed them down through the millennia for many different uses.
We left cats more on their own during domestication, since their major function was pest control.
Human beings have played some role in domestic cat evolution but mostly in terms of coat color and a few other appealing physical features (taillessness in the Manx, for instance).
Unlike dogs, cats are only semi-domesticated. We do control their breeding and food to some extent, but not completely. Cats will be cats.
And people will be people, which is why most cat registries have added the household pet category to their show competitions.
How much more will the domestic cat drift apart, physically and in its behavior, from the ancestral African wildcat? Only time will tell.
Featured image: Helena Jacoba. CC BY 2.0.
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