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Book Review: Learning to Love Your Cat’s Inner Lion

Not to worry: This isn’t another cute cat book. Instead, Losos, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis whose specialty is studying a large family of tree-living lizards known as anoles, taps deeply into a wide range of feline research, from digital tracking of nighttime activity to DNA testing, to show how much we’ve learned so far about cats — and how much is still left to discover.

Losos goes on to spend a good chunk of the book explaining the similarities and differences between housecats and their wild ancestors. “Whereas dogs have diverged from wolves in many genes, domestic cats and wildcats differ in only a handful,” Losos writes. “Cats truly are scarcely domesticated.”

In 2014, geneticists at Washington University in St. Louis sequenced an entire genome (of about 20,000 genes, similar to humans) of a cat named Cinnamon. Only 13 genes “showed evidence of having been changed by natural selection during the domestication process,” he writes. In a wolves-to-dogs comparison, meanwhile, there were almost three times as many. In fact, Losos prefers the term “semidomesticated,” since the cat’s evolutionary history is so different from the dog and other domesticated species.

The small fraction of altered genes, plus the high similarity in anatomy and behavior between housecats and wildcats, demonstrates how similar housecats are to their ancestors — even though they are different species, Losos writes. Another telltale sign of how close the two are: the speed with which a domesticated cat will lose its socialization skills and quickly adapt to living in the wild.

That said, today’s housecats exhibit many behaviors that seem to be linked to their relationship with humans. In fact, the very thing that distinguishes them from their ancestors is that they get along with us. Their purring, meowing, kneading, and hunting habits (they don’t hunt in groups, for instance) have all diverged from their African forebears.

Losos is a quirky and engaging writer. His book covers virtually everything cat-related — from research into feral cat populations and how much mileage cats cover in their nighttime wanderings, which can be tracked through special GPS collars, to breeding preferences and why a cat’s tail, when held up straight, is a friendly sign (it’s a signal to strangers from a long distance).

We learn that the neighborhood of Nachlaot in central Jerusalem “boasts the highest concentration of cats ever recorded anywhere in the world,” according to Losos — equivalent to 6,300 per square mile — and is the site of important research into the traits of both domesticated and non-domesticated cats.

Regarding natural selection, Losos reveals that male lions who take control of a new pride often kill the newborns of female lionesses fathered by other males. It’s an adaptation that makes evolutionary sense, he maintains, as the lionesses will more quickly bear cubs fathered by the new males, furthering their genes. Male housecats, on the other hand, don’t work together in lion-like coalitions; they are solitary and tend to move from one female to the next, racking up as many sexual partners as possible. (Though they have been known to occasionally exhibit infanticide.)

Losos himself owns three cats, and often draws on his personal observations to shed light on the nuances of housecat behavior, such as the frequency of cat fighting. “In one survey,” he notes, “45 percent of respondents who live in multicat households reported fighting among their cats at least once a month.”

Along the way, he visits some debates that he prefers not to wade into at length, such as the ethics of breeding, though he says there is one practice about which “there should be no debate: declawing and similar procedures are mutilation and are morally indefensible.”

But it remains difficult to determine which traits are unique to housecats, since their evolution has been complicated by interbreeding: “Wildcats the world over appear to be interbreeding willy-nilly with domestic cats,” he writes.

Category: Technology

Source: Undark

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