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Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Origin of Kittehs (Caturday XV)

Domestic cats are interesting creatures. I've enjoyed living with them these last few years, getting to know their strangely complex personalities. The bossiness and sauciness of the cats I've lived with sometimes really does make me feel like they're tiny humans in fur suits. Its hard to imagine how they could have ever been wild animals.

It turns out, that coming out of the woods and into our living rooms wasn't a human driven choice. A 2007 scientific study has confirmed that cats are one of the only species to have domesticated itself. Instead of being captured and reared, like cattle or dogs, wild cats decided to wander into human society and settle down.

It started when communities began storing their harvested grain in large silos. This brought a hoard of opportunistic rodents, which brought the cats, who after a little while decided that we humans weren't so bad after all, and took to sleeping in our houses and barns and accepting our saucers of milk. How gracious of them, right?

What I think is really cool is that our domestic cats are all descended from these wild cat species that are genetically distinct from say, a feral tabby who ran away from home. Some of these small wild cats are still active predators today. They're like living examples of the environment 12,000 years ago, before man and feline teamed up for zany madcap adventures. But of about 30 subspecies of wildcat, only 5 are recognized today. The rest have been wiped out by habitat loss or hybridization with domestic species. And those 5 subspecies of Felis silvestris all have very small wild populations.

My favorite though, of the surviving wildcat species has to be the Sand Cat (
Felis margarita- a cat for parties!).

They're native to the deserts of northern Africa, so unlike many of their genetic cohorts, their habitat is actually expanding. They are also protected in many of the countries that they reside in, not just by environmental mandate, but also by the religious belief that these cats were the companions of the prophet Mohammad and his daughter. As a forefather of your kitteh, this guy doesn't get any bigger than a standard house cat. They are primarily nocturnal and spend their days avoiding the harsh sun underground burrows. The Sand Cat is a master at digging. At night, they use their big ears to listen for rodents and lizards scurrying across the sand. They are also considered to be legendary snake hunters amongst the nomadic tribes of the Sahara.

Sand Cats are also legendary amongst the scientists who attempt to track and study them. Their entire life is built around the practice of being elusive. They have perfectly camouflaged coloring, and are built to skulk low across the ground. Their paws are covered with dense fur, which prevents them from sinking in the sand and makes their tracks are almost invisible. At night, they will close their eyes when light is trained on them, so as to not create a reflection. They also use their superior digging skills to bury their poop, leaving no trace of their presence behind. It's like Sand Cats have the opposite mentality of those early wild species that decided to be our buddies. They just want to stay hidden and free.

I just think they're so beautiful and cool, with those big long ears. Another friend to put in the real life pokemon category.

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