Cat-Blogging from Deep Time

Carl Zimmer in his blog, The Loom:

As the proud owner of a fine cat, Tino, I’m happy to join the ritual of cat-blogging. I was inspired after reading a new study that sorts out Tino’s kinship with other cats. Now I know that a cheetah is more closely related to Tino than it is to a leopard (right and left, respectively).


The evolution of cats has been a tough nut to crack. While it’s no great mental feat to tell the difference between Tino and a tiger, it’s not so easy to figure out exactly which species are most closely related to domesticated cats and which are more distant relatives. The oldest cat-like fossils date back 35 million years ago, and since then they’ve rapidly evolved into many lineages that have spread across all the continents save Antarctica. When evolution moves fast, it is hard to reconstruct its path. Making things harder is the fact that cat lineages have repeatedly evolved into similar forms to take advantage of similar ecological niches. This pattern isn’t unique to cats. Mammals with placentas (including cats, dogs, bears, bats, cows, primates, and rodents) underwent a massive evolutionary explosion, driven in large part by the extinction of big dinosaurs 65 million years ago. The evolutionary picture of this entire group has long been blurry. Over the past few years, a network of scientists have forced that picture into focus by gathering gene sequences from a wide range of mammal species and comparing them with statistical methods that can only be carried out on big computers. The major branches of the mammal tree are much clearer now.

More here.