Do domestic cats come from big cats?

Do domestic cats come from big cats? The answer has to be no. The reason is because the big cats split off and formed their own path millions of years ago. This is a discussion about the taxonomy of the cats. And it’s about the evolution of all the cats. They all have the same root going back millions of years but during evolution it is believed that eight cat lineages evolved as judged by their genetics. And the domestic cat lineage is separate from the Panthera lineage

The domestic cat lineage includes the: African wildcat, domestic cat, European wildcat, sand cat, Chinese mountain cat, jungle cat and black-footed cat. The domestic cat lineage began, it is believed some 8-10 million years ago.

The Panthera lineage includes the: lion, leopard, jaguar, tiger, snow leopard and clouded leopard. This group diverged relatively recently, 2-3 million years ago.

Panthera lineage
Showing clouded leopard’s place in the Panthera lineage. Illustration by PoC.
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Wild Cat Lineages

The other lineages are as follows: lynx lineage, caracal lineage, bay cat lineage, ocelot lineage, puma lineage and the leopard cat lineage. To these lineages we need to add three individual cat species which are not part of any group namely the serval, marbled cat and rusty-spotted cat. Definition in biology of ‘lineage’: a sequence of species each of which is considered to have evolved from its predecessor.

The chart below shows this diagrammatically:

Domestic cat is one cat species
Domestic cat is one cat species. Source: Wild Cats of the World by the Sunquists.

The image below shows these 8 groups of cat species:

Wild Cat Facts For Kids
Wild Cat Facts For Kids – the Species

Please click on the link below for the overall history of the cat from the species’ inception:

Domestic Cat History

The following page discusses the evolution of the big cats: History of the Big Cats

It is important to note, however, that, even today, people disagree about the classification of the wildcat species. Although it is far more settled than it was before we were able to analyse the DNA of cats. Mel and Fiona Sunquist in their book Wild Cats of the World say that the “systematics of felids has been the subject of long and bitter debate among taxonomists”. They argue that a lot of the confusion is because “all the cats, with the exception of the cheetah, make their living in a similar fashion”. This means that their morphology (how they are formed) is very similar despite a large difference in size between the smallest (rusty-spotted cat) and the largest (Siberian tiger). To put it another way, and in simplistic terms, all cats are very similar indeed. In some ways to divide them up into different groups is an artificial exercise. People do it because they like to order the world to try and better understand it.

The study of molecular genetics is evolving and Mel and Fiona Sunquist wrote their book in 2002. I expect things to have moved on slightly since then. However, they say that when scientists are able to analyse genetic material from different species, they can more accurately determine how closely species are related to each other. When species have been separated for a long time, normally meaning hundreds of thousands or millions of years, the divergence between the species of cat is shown in their DNA.

Taxonomy in a sentence
Taxonomy in a sentence


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