BEIJING, June 29 (Xinhuanet) -- If your cat's behavior sometimes drive you wild, it may be because new genetic evidence says domestic cats have a single ferocious ancestor whose modern-day relatives still roam the remote deserts of the Middle East.
A new genetic analysis suggests the change from a single-minded predator to a leg-rubbing tabby occurred about 10,000 years ago. About the same time humans gave up hunting and gathering, started growing crops in the Fertile Crescent and needed a mouse hunter for grain-storage areas.
"We think that was the beginning of one of the most interesting natural history experiments ever done," said Stephen O'Brien, a geneticist at the National Cancer Institute in Maryland, "which is the changing of a wild, ferocious predator into a friendly mouser that decided to hang its wagon on humankind."
Since domestics often breed with wild cats -- confusing the bloodlines -- the key difference between the two is behavior. Domestic cats can live in groups and are generally not afraid of people. Since behavioral analyses of a large and diverse group of cats would be nearly impossible, an international research team turned to genetics.
Carlos Driscoll of the National Cancer Institute and his colleagues analyzed genetic material from nearly 1,000 cats, including domestic cats and the wild cat subspecies: the European wildcat, Near Eastern wildcat, Central Asian wildcat, southern African wildcat and Chinese desert cat.
They found that each wild group represents a subspecies of the wildcat Felis silvestris. The DNA from domestic cats matched up with that of the Near Eastern wildcat subspecies Felis silvestris lybica, which lives in the remote deserts of Israel and Saudi Arabia. They detail the results this week in the online version of the journal Science.
The lineage that includes the domestic cat and its wild relatives originated earlier than previously thought, about 130,000 years ago. Scientists think it's likely cats took two different routes out of the Middle East. One group headed to Egypt while the others traveled from Mesopotamia to India, then to China and much later made their way to Japan.
To solve the mystery of when wild cats became domestic, scientists are turning to written historical records and archaeological evidence. For instance, Egyptian tomb paintings indicate that by 3,600 years ago domestic cats were living in Egypt, Driscoll said. And a cat and human burial site dating back 9,500 years was unearthed in Cyprus recently.