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Wash U biologist explains how cats evolved from the savannah to your sofa

Becky Kling, 62, of Creve Coeur, looks at “Jalapeño,” a 5-month old kitten, on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023, at the APA Olivette Animal Shelter in Olivette. Kling said she lost four of her pets the last year, including her 20-year-old cat and now was considering getting a new furry family member.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Becky Kling, 62, of Creve Coeur, looks at Jalapeño, a 5-month-old kitten at the APA Olivette Animal Shelter.

In the scientific world, Washington University evolutionary biologist Jonathan Losos is renowned for his groundbreaking research on lizards. But several years ago, he learned that scientists are using all the latest methods and technologies to study domestic cats, an animal he has admired since childhood.

The result of combining Losos’ expertise in evolutionary biology and love of cats is a new book, “The Cat's Meow: How Cats Evolved from the Savanna to Your Sofa.” It traces the evolutionary history of the beloved pet and the modern research tools scientists use to study them. The book was born out of a class he developed while teaching at Harvard University called the Science of Cats.

“The idea was that I would lure students in on cats and then I would teach them how we study nature, how we study evolution, ecology, and so on, just using cats as the vehicle,” he said. “The class was great fun, and that led me to writing a book with the same intention,” Losos told St. Louis on the Air.

Losos writes that the domestic cat originated from a single cat species known as the African wildcat.

“That cat looks pretty similar to a house cat,” he said. “I like to say that if you looked out your window into your backyard and saw an African wildcat, you would not say ‘What is an African wildcat doing’ but rather you'd say ‘What a cool-looking cat. I've never seen one quite like it.’ Their legs are a little longer, but you can easily mistake one for a domestic cat."

The early domestication process is likely to have started in the Fertile Crescent, an area that encompasses parts of present-day countries like Egypt and Syria in the Middle East, Losos said. With rodents taking over food storage facilities, cats saw an advantage of being close to humans. Research suggests it's also possible humans saw cats as a helpful resource and encouraged them with extra food or shelter.

“So we can imagine this back-and-forth dance, if you will, of the cats hanging around people, people being nicer, the cats hanging around more, and eventually you have your domestic cat,” Losos said.

The book also uncovers the ways domestication has influenced how cats behave and communicate today. For example, to Losos’ surprise, research shows cats hiss and growl to communicate with other cats but only meow to communicate with humans. Cats may even develop their own private language with humans with different meows and purrs, one of which can sound like a crying baby.

“Now humans, as you know, are very sensitive. We are innately sensitive to the sound of babies crying. And so it seems that cats have evolved to manipulate us. They know that this sound will grab our attention, and so they incorporated that into their purr when they really want something from us,” he said.

To learn more about Jonathan Losos’ book and learn about his experience of taking his European Burmese, Nelson, to cat shows, listen to St. Louis on the Air on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast or Stitcher or by clicking the play button below.

Wash U biologist explains how cats evolved

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Ulaa Kuziez is our production intern. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org.

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Ulaa Kuziez is a junior studying Journalism and Media at Saint Louis University. She enjoys storytelling and has worked with various student publications. In her free time, you can find her at local parks and libraries with her nephews.