No One Agrees On The Domestic Cat’s Scientific Name


Scientific names for cats have varied ever since Swedish zoologist Karl Linnaeus, back in 1758, first named the whole cat family Felis, giving each species second and third names. Lions, for example, were Felis leo, while common cats were Felis catus.

But even Linnaeus had trouble sorting out those small cats, which do all look very much alike.

House cats were fairly easy–Felis catus domesticus. And their Old-World wild relatives, which are virtually untameable in Europe, seemed distinct, too–Felis catus ferus.

But Linnaeus also made what we would call errors today. For instance, he thought that Angoras and tortoiseshell cats were separate subspecies–F. catus angorensis and F. catus hispanicus, respectively. We know that they’re the same species with two different looks that cat fanciers sometimes combine together.


Angora tortie threefer

A silly Angora (left, by lylejk, CC BY 2.0); a sensible tortoiseshell cat (right, by Mariamichelle, at Pixabay, public domain); and a black smoked tortie Angora that would have blown Linnaeus’ mind (Daly69, via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0).


Once the taxonomy ball started rolling, more zoologists went back over the cat family. Again and again, they rearranged it into various logical groupings according to the theories of the day. After the start of the 20th century, this process was improved with insights gained from genetics.

Today, according to one of the most recent taxonomic arrangements (see this 2017 PDF for details), the cat family Felidae now has 14 genus names, not just the single Felis.

Lions are Panthera leo, and according to this source, the domestic cat is Felis catus, per Opinion 2027 of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature in 2003.

However, that opinion can also be taken to mean that house cats are “domestic derivatives” of the wildcat–Felis silvestris–and indeed they were wildcats until just after the last ice age, when they met us.

So you’ll see some zoologists refer to them as Felis silvestris catus in highly-cited papers like this one.

Why should laypeople care about this academic tempest in a teacup? Because its outcome might undercut every conservation law that now protects wildcats, which are endangered species.

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Unlike Dogs, Cat Resemble Their Wild Ancestor


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.

DSC_9558

Linda Tanner. CC BY 2.0.

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.

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Possibly including use as a fashion accessory. (Eli Christman. CC BY 2.0.)

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.

Screenshot_2018-03-28-14-06-23

“There’s no need for a piece of sculpture in a home that has a cat” – Wesley Bates. (Image source. Public domain)

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.



Sources:

Driscoll, C. A.; Menotti-Raymond, M.; Roca, A. I.; Hupe, K.; and others. 2007. The Near Eastern origin of cat domestication. Science. 317:519-522.

Goodreads. Wesley W. Bates quote. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/115194-there-s-no-need-for-a-piece-of-sculpture-in-a Last accessed March 28, 2018.

Herbst, M. 2009. Behavioural ecology and population genetics of the African wild cat, Felis silvestris Forster 1870, in the southern Kalahari. PhD thesis, University of Pretoria.

Montague, M. J.; Li, G.; Gandolfi, B.; Khan, R.; and others.  2014.Comparative analysis of the domestic cat genome reveals genetic signatures underlyling feline biology and domestication.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, USA.  111(48):17230-17235.

Sunquist, M. and Sunquist, F. 2002. Wild Cats of the World. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. Retrieved from https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=IF8nDwAAQBAJ

Wikipedia. 2018. Southern African wildcat. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Southern_African_wildcat Last accessed March 28, 2018.

Wright, M., and Walters, S. 1980. The Book of the Cat New York: Summit Books.

Yamaguchi, N., Driscoll, C. A., Kitchener, A. C., Ward, J. M., and Macdonald, D. W. 2004. Craniological differentiation between European wildcats (Felis silvestris silvestris), African wildcats (F. s. lybica) and Asian wildcats (F. s. ornata): Implications for their evolution and conservation. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society. 83:47-63.

Zeder, M.A. (2012) Pathways to animal domestication, in i>Biodiversity in Agriculture: Domestication, Evolution and Sustainability, Gepts, P., ed., 227–259. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Wildcats

It’s hard to describe how wildcats and domestic cats are different, apart from their very different tolerances for people and the fact that domestic cats are generally nimbler and come in many more colors than wildcats. (Montague and others)

Experts are still debating what specific physical or genetic features define a wildcat. (Yamaguchi and others, 2004)
Starting in the nineteenth century, biologists identified wildcats by location and appearance. That system got so cumbersome – and the basic differences between many species were so few – that in 1951, they simply erected a species name Felis silvestris and then made each of the various wildcat groups a subspecies. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)

What it boils down to is that all wildcats got a third scientific name.

For example, gordoni is the Arabian wildcat’s third name. 

European wildcats – F. s. silvestris – are the oldest group of wildcats. They first evolved in Europe some 450,000 years ago. (Kurtén; Yamaguchi and others, 2004)

One of the latest wildcat filing arrangements puts the 21 currently recognized subspecies (Lyons, 2013) into one of these five basic wildcat groups (Yamaguchi and others, 2015):

1. and 2. African wildcats have short fur and the lithe steppe-cat look, with some tabby striping of their legs and body. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)

There are two groups:

  • F. s. cafra is found in southern and southeastern Africa.
  • F. s. lybica lives in northern Africa, coastal Arabia, the Near and Middle East, southwestern Asia, and on most Mediterranean islands. This is gordoni’s group.



3.  F. s. silvestris. Europe’s rugged forest cats look massive, but they’re about the same weight as the much slimmer-appearing African wildcats. Their favorite prey is rodents, but they also go after hares, rabbits, and even young deer. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)


4.  F. s. ornata. The dainty Asian wildcat is another steppe wildcat like Lybica and Cafra. Ornata has yellowish fur on its ears and, sometimes, small ear tufts. It’s the only spotted wildcat, with a coat that’s usually short but will vary by season and according to the wildcat’s age. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)

5.  F. s. bieti.  This cat has more common names than any other wildcat. This Chinese steppe, mountain, desert, or grass cat is about twice as big as Fluffy and has been sighted only in a small area that includes Sichuan, Shanxi, Gansu, Inner Mongolia, Xingjiang, and Qjinghai. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)

“Where’s my lawyer?”


As you can see, Bieti doesn’t resemble the other wildcats very much. There is ongoing scientific debate whether it really is a wildcat or a separate Felis species. (Driscoll and others, 2007; Werdelin and others, 2010; Yamaguchi and others, 2015)
Special note:  This post is adapted from one that I posted earlier this year at my other blog, RobinHuntingdon.wordpress.com.  I am very busy working on the final draft of “50 Facts About House Cats” and today I got up to Fact #12, which is about wildcats and domestic cats.  I don’t know that I’ll be able to get all fifty facts together in final draft by Cyber Monday; my alternate self-publication goal is December 15th.  Ultimately, though, since I’m not facing a contract deadline, the book will be published when it is in the most complete and enjoyable form that I can achieve for the reader.  Thanks to everyone for your interest!

IMAGES:

Featured image: European wildcat in open-air enclosure in Bavarian Forest National Park: Aconcagua (talk). CC BY-SA 3.0.

Flying Scottish wildcat, Cormack by name, at the British Wildlife Centre: Peter Trimming. CC BY 2.0.

Arabian wildcat: Michal Mañas. CC BY 2.5.

Felis silvestris lybica (Sardinian wildcat): Gurtuju. CC BY-SA 3.0.

European wildcat: Luc Viatour/www.Lucnix.be. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Asian wildcat video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qsy69yIFSWI:  Wild India.

Bieti: 西宁野生动物园.  CC BY-SA 3.0.


CITED AND UNCITED REFERENCES:
Anderson, E., and Stebbins, Jr., G. L.: 1954. Hybridization as an evolutionary stimulus. Evolution. 8(4):378-388.

Arnold, M. L. 2004. Transfer and origin of adaptations through natural hybridization: Were Anderson and Stebbins right? The Plant Cell. 16:562-570.

Barton, N. H., and Hewitt, G. M. 1985. Analysis of hybrid zones. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics. 16:113-148.

Dowling, T. E., and Secor, C. L. 1997. The role of hybridization and introgression in the diversification of animals. Annual Reviews of Ecology and Systematics. 28:593-619.

Driscoll, C. A.; Menotti-Raymond, M.; Roca, A. I.; Hupe, K.; and others. 2007. The Near Eastern origin of cat domestication. Science. 317:519-522.

Driscoll, C. A.; Macdonald, D. W.; and O’Brien, S. J. 2009. From wild animals to domestic pets, an evolutionary view of domestication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Supplement 1. 106:9971-9978.

Driscoll, C.; Yamaguchi, N.; O’Brien, S. J.; and Macdonald, D. W. 2011. A suite of genetic markers useful in assessing wildcat (Felis silvestris ssp.) – domestic cat (Felis silvestris catus) admixture. Journal of Heredity. 102(SI):S87-S90.

Herbst, M. 2009. Behavioural ecology and population genetics of the African wild cat, Felis silvestris Forster 1870, in the southern Kalahari. PhD thesis, University of Pretoria. http://repository.up.ac.za/bitstream/handle/2263/28963/Complete.pdf?sequence=6 Last accessed November 4, 2015.

Hewitt, G.  2000.  The genetic legacy of the Quaternary ice ages.  Nature.  405:907-913.

Johnson, W. E.; Eizirik, E.; Pecon-Slattery, J.; Murphy, W. J.; Antunes, A.; and Teeling, E. C. 2006. The Late Miocene Radiation of Modern Felidae: A Genetic Assessment. Science. 311:73-77.

Kitchener, A. C.; Yamaguchi, N.; Ward, J. M.; and Macdonald, D. W. 2005. A diagnosis for the Scottish wildcat (Felis silvestris): a tool for conservation action for a critically-endangered felid. Animal Conservation. 8:223-237.

Kitchener, A. C., Van Valkenburgh, B., and Yamaguchi, N. 2010. Felid form and function, in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, ed. D. W. Macdonald and A. J. Loveridge, 83-106. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Kurtén, B. 1965. On the evolution of the European wild cat, Felis silvestris Schreber. Acta Zoologica Fennica. 111:3-29.

Macdonald, D. W.; Yamaguchi, N.; Kitchener, A. c.; Daniels, M.; Kilshaw, K.; and Driscoll, C. 2010. Reversing cryptic extinction: the history, present, and future of the Scottish wildcat, in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, ed. D. W. Macdonald and A. J. Loveridge, 471-491. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mallet, J. 2005. Hybridization as an invasion of the genome. Trends in Ecology and Evolution. 20(5):229-237.

Montague, M. J.; Li, G.; Gandolfi, B.; Khan, R.; and others. 2014.Comparative analysis of the domestic cat genome reveals genetic signatures underlyling feline biology and domestication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 111(48):17230-17235.

Nussberger, B.; Wandeler, P.; Weber, D.; and Keller, L. F. 2014. Monitoring introgression in European wildcats in the Swiss Jura. Conservation Genetics. 15:1219-1230.

O’Brien, S. J., and Johnson, W. E. 2007. The evolution of cats. Scientific American. 297 (1):68-75.

O’Brien, S. J., and Koepfli, K-P. 2013. Evolution: A new cat species emerges. Current Biology. 23(24):R1104.

Oliveira, R.; Randi, E.; Mattucci, F.; Kurushima, J. D.; Lyons, L. A.; and Alves, P. C. 2015. Toward a genome-wide approach for detecting hybrides: informative SNPs to detect introgression between domestic cats and European wildcats (Felis silvestris.) Heredity. 115:195-205.

Pierpaoli, M.; Birò, Z. J.; Herrman, K.; Fernandes, M.; and others. 2003. Genetic distinction of wildcat (Felis silvestris) populations in Europe and hybridization with domestic cats in Hungary. Molecular Ecology. 12:2585-2598.

Randi, E. 2008. Detecting hybridization between wild species and their domesticated relatives. Molecular Ecology. 17:285-293.

Randi, E., and Ragni, B. 1991. Genetic variability and biochemical systematics of domestic and wild cat populations. (Felis silvestris: Felidae). Journal of Mammalogy. 72(1):79-88.

Rhymer, J. M., and Simberloff, D. 1996. Extinction by hybridization and introgression. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics. 27:83-109.

Shurtliff, Q. 2013. Mammalian hybrid zones: A review. Mammal Review. 43:1-21.

Sunquist, M. and Sunquist, F. 2002. Wild cats of the world. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Turner, A., and M. Antón. 1997. The Big Cats and Their Fossil Relatives: An Illustrated Guide to Their Evolution and Natural History. New York: Columbia University Press.

Werdelin, L.; Yamaguchi, N.; Johnson, W. E.; and O’Brien, S. J.. 2010. Phylogeny and evolution of cats (Felidae), in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, ed. D. W. Macdonald and A. J. Loveridge, 59-82. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Yamaguchi, N., Driscoll, C. A., Kitchener, A. C., Ward, J. M., and Macdonald, D. W. 2004. Craniological differentiation between European wildcats (Felis silvestris silvestris), African wildcats (F. s. lybica) and Asian wildcats (F. s. ornata): implications for their evolution and conservation. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society. 83:47-63.

Yamaguchi, N.; Kitchener, A.; Driscoll, C.; and Nussberger, B. 2015. Felis silvestris. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2015:e.T60354712A50652361. http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/60354712/0 .  Last accessed April 11, 2017

What Exactly Is A Wildcat?

Everybody uses the world “wildcat” differently. This is true even when you rule out all the human-, petroleum-, and finance-based meanings.

Here is what I mean by the term:

  • “Wildcat” is one word. Other cats in the wild are “wild cats” (two words).
  • The wildcat is Felis silvestris. Subspecies have at least one more name, like F. s. grampia (the Scottish wildcat) or F. s. lybica (the African/Near East wildcat ancestor of domestic cats).
  • Common names are the easiest to follow, except for “Lybica”, which is quicker than saying “the African/Near East wildcat” each time you want to mention the domestic cat’s ancestor.
  • Bobcats, as Lynx rufus, aren’t called wildcats here.

There are over twenty wildcat subspecies around. (Lyons, 2013) Biologists divide them into at least four basic groups (Yamaguchi and others, 2015):

  1. Lybica
  2. Another set of African wildcats, living south of the Sahara (F. s. cafra), that aren’t very closely related to domestic cats. See Herbst in the source list for more information on them.
  3. European wildcats
  4. Asian wildcats

Scientists are still discussing whether the Chinese mountain/desert/steppe cat (F. s. bieti) is really a wildcat or a separate Felis species. (Driscoll and others, 2007; Werdelin and others, 2010; Yamaguchi and others, 2015)

Wildcats are part of the domestic cat lineage, of course, but each one of these groups is unique and will get its own post in the next week or two.


Featured image: Scottish wildcat.  DesignFife at Pixabay. Public domain.


Sources:
Driscoll, C. A.; Menotti-Raymond, M.; Roca, A. I.; Hupe, K.; and others. 2007. The Near Eastern origin of cat domestication. Science. 317:519-522.

Herbst, M. 2009. Behavioural ecology and population genetics of the African wild cat, Felis silvestris Forster 1870, in the southern Kalahari. PhD thesis, University of Pretoria. PDF download. Last accessed November 4, 2015.

Lyons, L. A. 2013. Genetics of cat populations and breeds: Implications for breed management for health. Tufts Canine and Feline Breeding and Genetics Conference 2013. http://www.vin.com/doc/?id=5947811. Last accessed April 28, 2017.

Werdelin, L.; Yamaguchi, N.; Johnson, W. E.; and O’Brien, S. J.. 2010. Phylogeny and evolution of cats (Felidae), in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, ed. D. W. Macdonald and A. J. Loveridge, 59-82. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Yamaguchi, N.; Kitchener, A.; Driscoll, C.; and Nussberger, B. 2015. Felis silvestris. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2015:e.T60354712A50652361. Last accessed April 11, 2017.