Evolutionary Adaptations Of The Domestic Cat Biology Essay


To explore the evolutionary adaptations of the domestic cat Felis catus domesticus, it is important to look at ecological and genetic alterations that have occurred. Ecology is the name given to the study of environmental systems, "environmental" meaning the natural world versus human world and "systems" relating to the different parts of nature and how they interact (Hall, C. 2010). DNA is made up of many working parks known as genes, these genes collectively provide the blueprint for animals, humans, insects and bacteria, genetics is the study of these genes and also the chromosomes that contain them (The Genetics Society. 2011).

Saber-tooth is a term used to describe cat or cat-like creatures that independently evolved long, formidable and fragile canine teeth which could grow up to a length of around 20cm (Anissimov, M. 2003). The morphology of the Saber-toothed cat (Smilodon fatalis) and other saber-toothed carnivores have appeared many a time over the course of mammalian history, this see's the Saber-tooth placed alongside cats and dogs in the Carnivora order, Saber teeth having evolved among true cats, also sees the Saber-tooth as a member of the Felidae family (Smith, D. 2006). As a carnivorous animal, the saber-tooth lived amongst grassland or pine forests that were composed of rocky soil and it is most likely they preyed on larger game animals which include sloth, bison, deer, etc. (Gyssler, G. Date Unknown). Based on the assumption that injured animals would not survive without help, It is proposed that the saber-tooth were sociable animals after the discovery of partially healed skeletal injuries, however evidence does not support this as it is proven that cats are able to go without food and use metabolic reserves to heal quickly (McCall, S. 2003). The Saber-tooth existed around 40 million years ago and lived up until approximately 9,000 years ago where it is believed its extinction is attributed to human hunters (Anissimov, M. 2003).

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Around 12 million years ago at the beginning of the Pliocene period, the first true cats were found, evolutionary developments have since created three main categories / sub-species (Kittens Lair. 2008) of which the wild cat is currently considered to be made up; African wild cats (Felis silvestris lybica), European wild cats (Felis silvestris silvestris) and Asiatic wild cats (Felis silvestris ornate) (Dewey, T. 2005). It is believed their domestication occurred approximately 9,500 years ago (a time in which co-insides with the extinction of the Saber-tooth) (Author Unknown. 2013). Around 4000 BC the wild cat was first domesticated in the Valley of the Nile, large stocks of grain attracted rodents such as rats and mice, in turn this attracted the wild cat who would hunt and kill such rodents for food, realising the wild cat were helping to control the rodent infestation, people began to leave scraps of food to encourage the wild cat, consequently the wild cat began to stay in the cities and eventually became more at ease around humans (Kittens Lair. 2008).

The wild cat bears resemblance to the domestic tabby cat however marginally larger and heavier set with longer fur, they prefer to live amongst broadleaved woodland although habitat loss has driven them to survive in marginal environments such as moors, swamps rocky upland and also coastal areas (Clutton-Brock, J. 2011). Breeding amongst the wildcat can occur at different times, the European wildcat for example will mate in the late winter (January - March), they are polygynous maters meaning they will have more than one mate at the same time, are known to be solitary animals and can live up to 15 years in the wild where they survive on a carnivorous diet consisting mainly of small rodents (Dewey, T. 2005).

The cross-breeding of wild cats and domestic cats in Europe is said to be that of critical phenomenon, causing conservation problems for a threatened species (Oliveira, R., et al. 2008). In Scotland, scientists have conducted genome comparison studies in order to identify pure bred Scottish wild cats, the hybridisation of wild cats and feral cats is becoming an increasing threat to the survival of the wild cat as a species, recent research has identified Y chromosome markers and mitochondrial DNA which will assist greatly in the identification of the wild cat from the domestic cat enabling future wild cat conservation (McEwing, R., Ogden, R. & Senn, H. 2010).

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The species boasts an almost global distribution alongside a great feral population, both can be found primarily in areas of human habitation or at least in close proximity (Toenjes, N. 2011). It is a small carnivorous mammal that is also a skilled hunter known to hunt many a different species for food, they are also very intelligent creatures, it has been known for the cat to learn for itself how to operate simple mechanisms such as door handles (Solar Navigator. 2012). The domestic cat shares similar behaviours with its larger relatives such as the lion, tiger and leopard, when at rest they both remain alert to the slightest incident and have the ability to jump into action in an instant whilst eating and grooming habits are the same in all of the species (Edney, A. 2006). The mating seasons occur from March to September in the Northern hemisphere and October to March in the Southern where both the male and female will have numerous mates, throughout urban areas the territory area of the cat is decreased significantly in comparison to the wild where they would have many acres, due to this, territory overlaps which increases the chance of mating's (Toenjes, N. 2011). For the period 2011-2012 statistics showed that there were approximately 86.4 million pet cats owned in America (The Humane Society of the United States. 2011) and around 8 million in the United Kingdom (PFMA. 2012).

In excess of 200 inherited genetic defects have been recognised in the cat, most commonly known is the increased possibility of deafness in white cats with blue eyes, several different genes and the combination of them are responsible for hair colour and features such as a short tail, no tail and hair length is determined by altered polygenes and single allele (Solar Navigator. 2012). Other inherited and genetic conditions (to name but a few) are; Muscular dystrophy; a rare condition yet most common among the domestic short hair, Dwarfism; which can be caused due to a hormone deficiency or is selectively bred (due to the modern trend for smaller cats) and Polydactyls; a condition where the cat has an extra toe and this has been found in many different breeds (Feline Advisory Bureau. 2010).

The domestication of the cat has taken thousands of years, yet in comparison, very little alteration of the species has occurred, given the correct circumstance, even the most pampered of domesticated cats could revert back to and survive a life without humans (Halls, V. 2010). The word "cat" is used to describe (in general) the most specialised of the mammals that have a large brain and olfactory senses, powerful jaws, carnassial teeth developed for shearing, a skeleton specialised for leaping and retractable claws (Allaby, M. 2009). In addition the differences between the domestic cat and tigers or lions for example, is very small, all have muscular bodies, rapid reflexes, highly evolved teeth and claws and camouflage colourings, due to this cats as a whole can be classed in the genus Felidae (Clutton-Brock, J. 2011).

A study into the skull shape of the sabre-tooth cat, modern conical-toothed cats and prehistoric 'basal' cats (ancestors to modern), shows that deeply rooted evolutionary histories such as marked divergence's, created differences in cats skull shapes, meaning that the small / medium cats (domestic, cheetah and ocelot) followed different evolutionary paths in respect to skull shape than that of the modern big cats (lion, tiger and leopard), the study professes to be the first in determining the relationships between them using skull measurements (Sakamoto, M. & Ruta, M. 2012).

Over time the cat has evolved and developed into many different species that we see today however the differences between the current domestic cat is not too different than that of their ancestors. The species has remained a carnivorous hunter even though today they live alongside humans as one of our closest companions. The choice of habitat has changed for some but only through domestication however if left alone even the most domestic of cats will revert back to a feral state and survive. Through human intervention the domestic cat has been selectively bred, usually according to current trend for traits such as coat colour, coat pattern and body size and in some cases this has produced genetically inherited defects. The name "cat" is used to describe not only the modern domestic, but the wild cat and the saber-tooth cat. Classification places them together amongst the Felidae family with any genus and species being determined by historic divergence or human intervention (selective breeding) which in turn created a new species.

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