How Cats Conquered the World (and a Few Viking Ships)

There’s so much we don’t know about the history of cats, but one study is giving us some clues. Are domestic cats really all that different from their wild counterparts? Are they the same the world over? And how did domesticated cats spread around the world? Evolutionary geneticist Eva-Maria Geigl and her colleagues from the Institut Jacques Monod in Paris studied the mitochondrial DNA of 209 cats found at archaeological sites in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. They ranged from a couple hundred to 15,000 years old. The DNA samples confirmed that cats were domesticated along with the rise in agriculture, as they were quite useful in rodent control.   

Thousands of years later, cats descended from those in Egypt spread rapidly around Eurasia and Africa. A mitochondrial lineage common in Egyptian cat mummies from the end of the fourth century bc to the fourth century ad was also carried by cats in Bulgaria, Turkey and sub-Saharan Africa from around the same time. Sea-faring people probably kept cats to keep rodents in check, says Geigl, whose team also found cat remains with this maternal DNA lineage at a Viking site dating to between the eighth and eleventh century ad in northern Germany.

“There are so many interesting observations” in the study, says Pontus Skoglund, a population geneticist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. “I didn’t even know there were Viking cats.” He was also impressed by the fact that Geigl’s team was able to discern real population shifts from mitochondrial DNA, which traces only a single maternal lineage. Nonetheless, Skoglund thinks that nuclear DNA — which provides information about more  of an individual's ancestors — could address lingering questions about cat domestication and spread, such as their relationship to wild cats, with which they still interbreed.

Of course there were Viking cats! Ships’ cats appear to be the key to spreading the love of felines and their pest control superpowers around the world. The study also determined that calico cats didn’t exist until the Middle Ages. Learn more about the study at Nature.  -via Digg

(Image credit: Joel Veitch)

Love cute animals? View more at Lifestyles of the Cute and Cuddly blog

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