Cats Climb New Family Tree

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The final feline to appear was the household cat, which emerged between 6.2 and 6.7 million years ago.

The house cat either came from European ancestors that remained in Asia or from North American cats that migrated from across the Bering land bridge, which spanned present-day Siberia and Alaska.

"It's really just the last blink of an eye in evolutionary time when domestication created … house cats like Garfield," O'Brien said.

Experts believe domestication occurred several thousand years ago in the Middle East, probably in Egypt, where some of the first archeological evidence of domestic cats was discovered. Hieroglyphics from the region depict cats, and their bones have been found buried with humans.

Johnson says the genetic evidence his team discovered does not contradict that common belief. However, he said, domestication may have occurred more than once and in more than one place.

Skin Samples

In their study, described in the current issue of the journal Science, the team took skin samples from all 37 living cat species.

This was a difficult task, Johnson says, because many are rare and live in remote locations.

The team then looked at data from the species' X and Y chromosomes (the genetic determinants of gender) and mitochondrial DNA.

"Genomics is giving us a tool that goes beyond just simply understanding the basis of genetic diseases," O'Brien said.

"It's also giving us a compass, or a map, where we may actually begin to try to reconstruct the history of some of the species that live on Earth, including ourselves."

The researcher says he next plans to investigate where and when the household cat was domesticated.

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