Call me Koryos. I study biology and psychology and I write novels. Right now my goals are to a) go to grad school and b) get published.

My blog is like 85% animal science and 15% video games with a smattering of kvetchy text posts so I hope you're ok with that. And I also like... write fiction... occasionally.

I KNOW I WROTE THAT CAT POST BUT I CAN'T DIAGNOSE YOUR CAT'S BEHAVIORAL PROBLEMS PLEASE TALK TO A VET I AM NOT A VET

MOONY IS AN AXOLOTL AND IT ALSO SAYS WHAT HE IS AT THE TOP OF THAT POST QUIT ASKIN ME WHAT HE IS

I'm writing a web novel called Darkeye! Scroll down to the bottom of the sidebar for the link!

 

CATS

let’s talk about housecats and how fucking weird they are evolutionarily/anthropologically

like who thought it was a good idea to have tiny malicious predators in our homes anyways????? (not us actually)

are they even domesticated????!!!?? (yes) do they even feel LOVE???????!!? (yes)

LET’S LEARN ABOUT CATS

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you ready 2 learn punk

PART ONE: WHAT CIRCLE OF HELL DID CATS EVEN COME FROM

Housecats are the most popular pet in the world, and there are about 600 million of them on earth (compare that to the 525 million dogs!)

Cats are the first of only two solitary predators EVER to be domesticated, and the second was ferrets about 2,000 years ago.

Nobody is sure when cats were actually domesticated, mainly because fossils tell one story and genes tell another. Archaeologists say cats were domesticated by the Egyptians ~3,500 years ago.

I’m firmly in the molecular evidence camp myself, which says cats were probably domesticated around 10,000 years ago when humans first figured out how to farm and store crops. What do you get when you store lots of grain?

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hello friend i heard you had some tasty nibblies i’ll just let myself in

SO MANY LITTLE RATTIES AND MOUSIES CAME TO PLAY. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen footage of a mouse plague (DO NOT CLICK IF SQUEAMISH ABOUT RODENTS) but it is what happens when you put a lot of mouse food in one place and there is no one to eat them.

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the floor is mice i repeat the floor is mice

But luckily that didn’t happen in this case, because way back then in the fertile crescent (cradle of human civilization baby) there actually was a very, very good predator of little squeaky things. A wild predator. A savage, untamable hunter. This guy.

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the most feared hunter in all the land

"Okay Koryos," you say, furrowing your sweaty, vaguely mottled brow, "that’s a cute picture of a sleepy domestic kitty, but where’s the terrifying feral ancestor?"

I’m not joking. That picture up there is a wild animal, Felis sylvestris. Maybe it will become more apparent if I can get her to open her mouth.

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"i am completely different animal from a housecat my canines are slightly longerrrrrrr!"

Ah yes, the wildcat. Specifically, the African wildcat, as that would have been the subspecies roaming around the fertile crescent at the time. In total, there are three major physical changes the African wildcat went through on its way to becoming domesticated:

  • smaller canines
  • shorter, stockier body
  • smaller brain

Aside from that, and the proliferation of piebald coloration (as it is in most domestic animals- there is actually probably a genetic link between piebaldness and domestic behavior- but we’re getting ahead of ourselves here) there is really not much of a difference in the appearance of the African wildcat and your average domestic tabby. Naturally, they can interbreed magnificently well.

Of course, this raises the question: why is the number of African wildcats constrained to 10,000 in Africa and still shrinking, where domestic cats are 600 million strong and have visited every continent? And I do mean every continent.

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Pictured: a cat chilling outside a naval base in Antarctica

If you said the obvious answer was human intervention, you would be correct… kinda.

PART TWO: CATS USE US TO THEIR ADVANTAGE

We all know the stereotype that dogs are happy loving doofs while cats are ~independent assholes~, right?

Anyone who has spent a prolonged amount of time around my cat will know how blatantly untrue this is, as you have not met a needy animal until you have sat with one trying to literally wrap her paws around your neck so you can’t leave- uh, I digress.

There’s a very similar saying among researchers that dogs were domesticated, but cats domesticated themselves.

While not strictly true in terms of dogs (oh, I can go off on dog domestication do not get me started) this is pretty much on the money for cats. Humans didn’t grab cats and make them start hunting mice. In fact, that would be incredibly difficult, as wildcats are extremely shy. Cats simply heard the rodents squeaking around in whatever the ancient version of a silo was and went after them. And the humans certainly had no reason to discourage them (once they figured out what was going on, I presume- I imagine the first human opening a door and spotting a cat inside shrieking “THE MICE HAVE GROWN HUGE SAVE YOURSELF”)

Flight distance refers to the distance an animal is willing to let you approach it before it flees. African wildcats today have a pretty massive flight distance- you are extremely lucky if you see one before it spots you and jets. Those first cats attacking the mice in human granaries would have had a big disadvantage if they were running every time they spotted a human within thirty feet. So, they adapted. Their flight distance shrank from generation until eventually they were able to tolerate humans within feet of them. Think of the behavior of squirrels in suburban areas. They aren’t going to let you pick them up, exactly… but they’re definitely not afraid of you.

For the fact that my cat aggressively demands my cuddles every night, we can probably thank the ancient Egyptians. Egyptians were a little cat obsessed. And by a little, I mean that there are burial grounds where mummified cat remains are so densely packed that the soil you are walking on is 98% powdered cat. Nasty.

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note: do not search ‘cat mummy’ in google images because some results will distress you deeply

In Egyptian hieroglyphs and imagery we see the first instances of the cat acting like a pet. Cats sitting under chairs, cats being played with, and of course, cats being petted! There is even evidence that cats were trained and used to scare game up for hunters, much like some breeds of dogs are today.

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Image from the tomb of Nebamun. Either a cat scaring up game or a cat just having the best afterlife ever. full of murder.

This new closeness would only be possible if the Egyptians had started taking kittens from semi-domesticated cats and raising them to become accustomed to human contact. Thus, cats underwent the final stages of their domestication. And boy were there a fucking lot of them, and boy did the Egyptians love them. Look up the cult of Bastet if you’re interested in all that- I only do animals ok I don’t fuck around with human history ok

(Or ask my history friends, elizabeth-karenina and stormeagle. They are friendly and physically attractive. i am not biased)

Anyway these were the first true cat colonies, the kind you can imagine living in urban areas today, living in and around the Egyptian temples. This was a pretty big deal, considering the fact that the African wildcat is a solitary animal that doesn’t tolerate other individuals living in their territories. And now we have colonies of cats of up to 200 living shoulder to shoulder.

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note to my readers if you are studying bats late at night and you notice a few cats do not bring chicken the next night do not do it they can smell it and THE HORDE WILL COME 

THIS IS ACTUALLY A BIG DEAL because it is a complete reversal of behavior like if you look at the domesticated dog the wolf was already social as an adult??? but wildcats were not AND they were very shy/aggressive to others??? WOW WHAT HAPPENED

PART THREE: THE MIRACLE HAPPEN

Alright so we get a lot of people basically saying, hey, cats are not domesticated because a) they live very well in feral colonies without human support and b) they still have a sensitive period as kittens in which they need to be handled by humans or else they will become shy as fuck as adults.

THIS OF COURSE DEPENDS ON YOUR DEFINITION OF DOMESTICATION. There are in fact several and the one I subscribe to is p. different but anyway let’s go with this one for now (that domestic animals can’t live without human help/are altered from birth to be accepting of human contact).

FiRST of all every species of domestic animal still has a sensitive period and in fact so do human infants so the reasoning behind that one is a little silly. However it is a very good point that the cat’s sensitive period is pretty extreme compared to other pets’ (like dogs) and a cat that has never been socialized is basically never going to be comfortable around humans even if brought into a home.

The reason for this is probably because the feral and domestic cat populations still interbreed freely so that sensitive period stuck around. If you’re wild you don’t want to be fuckin friendly goin up to every schmuck that crosses your path- you better learn what doesn’t maul you as a kitten and then stick with as an adult, ya dig? Domestication is p. fuckin dangerous in the wild.

Okay but on the subject of the “wildness” of cat colonies, that’s also pretty untrue too. Most cat colonies are SUPPORTED with human help, either by dumpsters or scraps or very often well-meaning human feeders. In rural areas there is not enough food to support huge colonies and cats tend to actually be spread out into single territories like wildcats are. And they also tend to be more malnourished the further they are from human contact. And then they eventually can’t support a growing population. So, there’s that.

So the idea that cats aren’t domesticated seems shaky. So now we go to my preferred definition of domestication- that a) animals are comfortable living in close quarters in large numbers and b) animals are significantly behaviorally changed from wild ancestors to have more prosocial behavior in general (you note that humans aren’t mentioned that’s because animals have actually been known to self-domesticate… for example populations on islands or confined areas. also cats. also humans. whoa)

Alright so some people would contest the second part of that definition- HAVE cats significantly changed their behavior from wild ancestors? The whole colony thing would seem to be pretty conclusive but you can also point out the fact that in captivity, you often CAN get wildcats to tolerate one another pretty well in groups as long as they were raised together. So… has cat behavior changed at all????

ZE ANSWER IS YES OF COURSE but let me segue into that.

Some time ago there was an experiment where researchers tagged both feral cats and wildcats living in the same area in Africa near a city with gps trackers. They found a LARGE difference in behaviors. The feral cats would cluster together around dumpsters for scraps of food at night. The wildcats would NOT and always maintained a large distance away from one another and human habitation. This suggests that regardless of whether or not there is human contact during the sensitive period (this city did not have a culture of keeping cats as pets and the feral cats were treated as pests) feral cats are willing to cluster together- and wildcats, when living their natural lives, are not.

So yes, there is a genetic difference in behavior there that cannot be explained by location/rearing. Mainly of flight distance, which makes a lot of sense. But there are also quite a few other differences too, some of which are surprising. Have a look at these spectrograms of wild and domestic cat meows.

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Taken from Nicastro & Owren, 2004. Cited below.

Even if you have no fucking idea what a spectrogram is you can tell that there’s a big difference and that the wildcat meows look a lot denser. Human listers also found them a lot less pleasant to listen to than domestic cat meows, even though they were told that only domestic cat meows were in the study.

There is another big goddamn difference when it comes to meows, too- wildcats will meow as kittens but hardly EVER meow as adults, whereas domestic cats if you hadn’t noticed meow all the goddamn time and never shut up. They have retained the kittenish behavior of meowing into adulthood (similar to the way that dogs retain the wolf puppy behavior of barking into adulthood). This retention of a juvenile trait is known as neoteny and it’s pretty common among domestic animals, particularly pets. You want humans to love you and care for you? BE A BABY FOREVER

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this chihuahua has achieved it. literally a baby forever

There is one last slightly horrifying thing about cat meows. Researchers have detected a dissonance in some cries, mainly food-getting ones, that is very similar to another cry- the cry of a human baby. Meaning that over time cat meows have evolved to sound like human babies crying so that we physiologically cannot ignore them.

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do u think u will ever be able to sleep in past 6 am again ha ha ha fuck you

What the fuck cats. What the fuck. But those aren’t the only things that have changed. Cause you see, cats, unlike dogs, didn’t have to evolve just to learn how to be around humans. Remember that whole solitary predator thing I keep pushing? They also had to learn, from scratch, how to be around other cats.

PART FOUR: LITERALLY TINY LIONS

The fact that feral cats can sometimes get into very vicious and life-threatening fights with one another is due to the fact that they don’t quite have a whole system of communication worked out the way some other species have. But this does not mean they are not social. Far from it. It’s just that their level of sociability depends on the situation.

For example, researchers doing observational studies have found that male cats behave pretty differently depending on their environment. When they are in rural areas, where cat territories are spread out and females are few and far between, fights between toms get very vicious. But when they are in urban areas, the fights are less frequent and less severe. Sometimes toms will actually wait in line to mate with a queen who’s in heat simply because there’s enough females to go around. No need to fight when there is so much… here it comes you guys… wait for it…. pussy.

[GROAN TRACK]

Female cat sociability is very high in dense colonies as well. Usually mothers, daughters, and sisters will help raise kittens communally. They will nurse one anothers’ kittens and even help each other give birth! WOW. There is usually a dominance hierarchy set up too, usually with the oldest female being on top and her daughters being submissive to her.

"OK but you mentioned lions in the section header and what does this have to do with lions," you say, aggressively stroking your ridged horns. Well be patient friend I am just getting to that.

I talked earlier a little bit about the retention of one juvenile trait- meowing- into adulthood, aka neoteny. Cats have a lot of other neotonic behaviors, like kneading (aka the thing kittens will do to mom’s belly to stimulate more milk production) and high levels of playfulness (for every cat except my personal cat who hates fun and joy.)

Now, why were these behaviors in particular retained? For wildcats, the only highly social period they experience is when they are kittens living with their siblings and mother. Therefore, these behaviors that exist to communicate with mom, bro, and sis are brought forward when the cats need to be social as adults too. Waste not want not says evolution. All of these behaviors serve to mitigate aggression in some way, so cats can spend less time getting into costly fights.

But juvenile traits aren’t the only ones cats will adapt for social purposes. Ever been rubbed on by a cat? Ever seen a cat be pleased enough to flop down and roll over? Guess where these traits come from? SEX.

Yes that is correct, wildcats use rubbing, headbutting, and rolling to signify to a potential mate that they do not want to fight but rather do the whattup if you know what I mean. It is true that they also use rubbing to scent mark- but when they use it as a social behavior, it is to scent mark that they are going to put their penis in that. Or vice versa.

So at some point submissive domestic cats that did not want to fight started doin this to each other. Like “dude i don’t want to get mauled you are so sexy also can i get your scent on me yeah boi now we friends.”

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fuck me you hot hairy bastard. FUCK ME

Okay so this is really cool and all, especially since we don’t see adult wildcats in the wild using these behaviors in this way at all. In fact no cats do, cause cats just aren’t social animals… wait a minute.

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DIDN’T I TELL YOU THERE WOULD BE LIONS. look at how happy that one fricker is christ it’s making ME happy

OKAY THE REALLY COOL THING is that lions are in the genus Panthera, right? And alllll the way at the other end of the kitty spectrum is the Felis genus will all the itty cats like domestic cats. Very separated. And yet, lions show many of the exact same social behaviors that domestic cats do.

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yeah we gon frick. but we are also displaying positive prosocial behavior so we don’t kill each other in the night. and frick instead

Yep, rubbing/headbutting, rolling, vocalizing more (in this case rumbling and roaring instead of meowing), even more playful behavior… lions do these with other members of their pride to maintain social bonds. And these behaviors REAPPEARED in wildcats when they were domesticated. CONVERGENT EVOLUTION. WE HAVE BASICALLY CREATED TINY LION PRIDES. IN OUR LIVING ROOMS. WOW GUYS.

There is actually one social behavior that domestic cats have evolved that lions do NOT have… and neither does any other species of cat on record. Look at this picture of my cat.

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wow what a cutie ugh

How would you feel about this cat approaching you? Pretty good, right?

Now look at this picture.

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situation has CHANGED note the motion blur

How would you feel about a kitty with this body language approaching you? Now of course there are many subtle differences in body language between the two pictures. But the biggest, most obvious one is the position of the tail.

First picture: tail up. Friendly cat. Will pet. Second picture: tail down and lashing. NOT FRIENDLY DO NOT PET ABORT MISSION

(she was mad at our new washing machine in the second picture btw)

Tail lashing is seen in pretty much every cat species to signify intensity and aggression. But tail up is NOT seen in ANY cat species besides domestic cats, not even lions! Studies have indeed shown that cats are more likely to approach a silhouette with a tail up than one without, suggesting that yes, this is a signal cats use with one another to signify friendliness.

Pretty amazing, right? A completely new, never-before-seen social behavior has evolved in cats!

PART FIVE: SUMMARY, FINALE, GLORY

To sum up what we’ve learned, domestic cats all descended from the African wildcat that was living in the fertile crescent of the Middle East/Africa about 10,000 years ago. They were attracted by the rodent issue that emerged when humans first domesticated grain and wheat species. Cats became really big in ancient Egypt a few thousand years later and started living in big, social colonies. 

We can see the effects of these changes in how well (compared to wildcats) the domestic cat can socialize with both humans and other cats! In fact, the social behavior of the domestic cat is very similar to the social behavior of the lion. But there is one behavior, tail up, that seems to be completely new and unique to the domestic cat.

So why study cat behavior at all- why does it even matter what behaviors the cat has or doesn’t have?

Well, as I’ve stressed quite a few times, cats came from a NONSOCIAL species. In the last 10,000 years they have evolved into a completely social species, complete with their own unique signals. That’s pretty amazing. And it shows us the conditions social behavior evolves and reasons why social behavior can be successful. Remember… there are 600 million cats in the world. 10,000 wildcats. 600 million domestic cats.

They played the evolutionary game, and they won. Big time.

SOURCES AND MORE INFORMATION

I plan to study animal behavior and specifically the evolution of social and domestic behaviors for a living, so this is a topic I am obviously passionate about. As ever, I welcome questions, debate, and addendum to this topic! If you enjoyed this post, you might also be interested in another I did on gay and asexual behaviors in animals.

Here are a few quick reads/views to learn more about cat evolution and behavior:

A Brief History of House Cats, an article that appeared in the Smithsonian.

The Science of Cats, a National Geographic Documentary.

a paper written by some pretentious tumblr user, if you want the longer, more professional version of this post. (appendix A, page 41)

And here is a selected bibliography for the science-minded:

Barratt, D. G. (1997). Home range size, habitat utilisation and movement patterns of suburban and farm cats Felis catus. Ecography.

Bradshaw, J., & Cameron-Beaumont, C. (2000). The signalling repertoire of the domestic cat and its undomesticated relatives. The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour. 

Cafazzo, S., & Natoli, E. (2009). The social function of tail up in the domestic cat (Felis silvestris catus). Behavioural Processes.

Driscoll, C. A. C.-B., Juliet; Kitchener, Andrew C.; O’Brien, Stephen J. (2009). The Evolution of House Cats. Scientific American.

Edwards, C., Heiblum, M., Tejeda, A., & Galindo, F. (2007). Experimental evaluation of attachment behaviors in owned cats. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research.

McComb, K., Taylor, A. M., Wilson, C., & Charlton, B. D. (2009). The cry embedded within the purr. Current Biology.

Miklósi, Á., Pongrácz, P., Lakatos, G., Topál, J., & Csányi, V. (2005). A Comparative Study of the Use of Visual Communicative Signals in Interactions Between Dogs (Canis familiaris) and Humans and Cats (Felis catus) and Humans. Journal of Comparative Psychology.

Morrison-Scott, T. C. S. (1952). The mummified cats of ancient Egypt.

Nicastro, N. (2004). Perceptual and Acoustic Evidence for Species-Level Differences in Meow Vocalizations by Domestic Cats (Felis catus) and African Wild Cats (Felis silvestris lybica). Journal of Comparative Psychology.

*I meant to talk about proof that cats are attached to their human owners but I forgot and I don’t have a good spot to insert it up there. But uh yeah there is a famous study used with human children to describe good relationships with their mothers, known as attachment. When cats are with their owners, they show the same behaviors that attached human children to with their mothers. Also, some cats have separation anxiety. Owners sometimes alleviate this anxiety by getting another cat to be the first cat’s companion. But this does not alleviate the symptoms of separation anxiety. Why? Because the cat doesn’t want companionship- it wants your companionship and no one else’s.

Your cat loves you. Give her a cuddle today.

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