The origin of the tabby coat and other cat mysteries revealed

The origin of the tabby coat and other cat mysteries revealed

The origin of the tabby coat and other cat mysteries revealed

Updated 20 June 2017, 12:00 AEST

A new study on how cats conquered the world — and our hearts — has answered long-standing questions.

The distinctive pattern of the tabby cat's coat emerged in the Middle Ages and didn't become common until the 18th Century, new research has found.

This is just one finding from a large study that used DNA analysis to trace the geographic dispersal and domestication of cats from ancient to modern times.

The research, published today in Nature Ecology & Evolution reveals "unprecedented insights into the origins and global spread of one of our oldest pets", said Australian co-author Dr Alison Crowther, from the University of Queensland.

"Before this study, we actually knew very little about the cat domestication and dispersal processes, which is quite surprising given that cats are so popular as pets today."

Domestic cats are now found on all continents, except Antarctica, and in the most remote regions of the world.

They are descended from the Near Eastern wildcat, Felis silvestris lybica, (also called the African wildcat), but a lack of cat remains in the archaeological record has made it difficult to confirm how these cats conquered the world, Dr Crowther said.

She and colleagues analysed DNA samples of hair, teeth, bone and skin from hundreds of ancient and modern cats from Europe, north and east Africa and south-west Asia.

Samples came from cats spanning more than 9,000 years of history from the Mesolithic — the period just before the advent of agriculture, when humans lived as hunter-gatherers — to the 20th century.

Co-author Dr Claudio Ottoni, from the University of Leuven in Belgium, said analysis showed the conquest originated in two waves of dispersal — first from the near east and later from Egypt.

A cat skeleton found with human remains in a 9,500-year-old burial site in Cyprus suggested cats were used by early Neolithic farmers to help control rodents attracted by grain.

The DNA evidence showed this lineage of cat spread to Bulgaria and Romania within 3,000 years.

In the second wave of colonisation several thousand years later, Egyptian cats spread to Europe during the Roman era and became more common than the cats from the near east.

Egyptian cats spread further with the help of Vikings, as shown by cat DNA from the 7th century found in the Viking port in Ralswiek on the Baltic Sea.

Dr Ottoni said their study suggested the "peculiar social and cultural context of the Egyptian society may have facilitated the evolution of a more 'friendly' disposition of cats towards humans".

He said in Egypt cats were at total ease in domestic contexts, as witnessed by Egyptian iconography from more than 3,000 years ago that showed a cat sitting under a chair.

In Medieval times this Egyptian cat spread throughout the Mediterranean along trade routes as the predators were used by mariners to control rodents on board ships.

"Their popularity as a companion animal, together with their role as a pest control agent on ships, might have determined the success of the Egyptian cat in spreading along trade routes, " Dr Ottoni said.

It was during the Ottoman Empire that the genetic mutation responsible for the blotched tabby cat coat pattern emerged, the researchers found.

This pattern, which is in 80 per cent of present-day cats, became more frequent in southwest Asia, Africa and also Europe, and was quite common by the 18th century.

But, say the researchers, it was not until the 19th century that physical traits were selected for the production of fancy breeds.

Despite the "domestication" of cats, Dr Ottoni said they remained "quite independent and even as pets and households' companion they still keep their innate predatory skills".

"The modern genome shows the main change in the domestic cat occurred at the level of behavioural features: cats had just to become more friendly, and 'tolerate' humans to enter their households and 'enjoy' the commodities of life together with humans," he said.