If you want to see real time evidence of evolution at work, all you have to do is turn to your goofy, adorable pooch or sweet (though sometimes moody!) kitty. Over the years — and sometimes in less than a decade’s time — countless new breeds have been introduced to the world via both natural and artificial selection.
How Cats Have Evolved Over Time
It may seem hard to believe that there was a time when cats weren’t meant to be house pets, but it’s true. The pivot occurred roughly 12,000 years ago in the Middle East when people took a long, hard look at the stray wildcats roaming around and realized just how useful they could be at keeping pesky, disease-ridden rodents away. That lightbulb moment lead to the domestication of cats, and it’s been a rich (and cuddly) history ever since.
All cats can be traced back to the Middle Eastern Wildcat, whose scientific name is Felis Sylvestris (that scientific name probably has something to do with Felix and Sylvester being common cat names!). Good news about cats got around, and they were transported to various parts of the world via ship where they served as both companions and vermin hunters. This feline dissemination resulted in the following breeds, which are named after their location: Persian, Abyssinian, Siamese, Birman, British Shorthair, and American Domestic.
From the above, we now have over 70 different types of cat breeds! Many of these have been bred for their personalities, physical traits, and ability to hunt, swim, retrieve, and even protect.
“For example, a completely hairless kitten sparked the idea of a cat that would be more suitable for those who suffer with allergies and later became known as the Sphinx. The same way, the Munchkin breed was inspired when half a litter of kittens were born with super-short legs” explains Sandie Lee on the PawedIn blog.
Today, 95% of cats here in the States are bred at random and are lumped into the breed of American Domestics. The remaining 5% are pedigreed, which means they’ve been bred under the careful eye of humans to ensure pristine lineage.
How Dogs Have Evolved Over Time
Like felines, all of the domestic dogs roaming around and barking at cars today can be traced back to one type of canine. Though we don’t know for certain which canine that was, we do know that the “closest living relative of the dog is the gray wolf, and there is no evidence of any other canine contributing to its genetic lineage.”
Another thing that’s somewhat unclear is where and when dogs were first domesticated. Some argue they were domesticated about 15,000 years ago in Europe, while others believe dogs were domesticated around 12,500 years ago in Asia.
A 2016 study conducted by the American Journal Science posits that perhaps dogs were domesticated twice. We don’t know the answer for certain, but knowing how lovable pups are, it’s not hard to image humans in several parts of the world opting to domesticate canines independently of each other.
In any case, humans picked out wolves that were naturally inclined toward domestication, and bred them for specific, desirable traits. Those traits include everything from physical appearance to athleticism to cuddliness and beyond.
We know what you’re thinking. How do you get a Chihuahua, dachshund, or poodle from a wolf? Through controlled and strategic breeding, that’s how!
“While we usually think of evolution as a slow and gradual process, dogs reveal that incredible amounts of diversity can arise very quickly, especially when selective pressures are very, very strong,” writes Christie Wilcox on ScienceBlog. Later, she states, “When you take away the selective breeding done by humans, a number of these unique traits disappear. But feral dogs don’t just become wolves again – their behaviors and even looks depend greatly on the ecological pressures that surround them. Our centuries of selective breeding have opened a wide variety of traits, both physical and behavioral.”
Today the American Kennel Club recognizes 167 breeds of dogs, and the World Canine Organization recognizes a whopping 340. We wouldn’t be surprised if there were even more variations out there, but one thing we do know for certain is that they’re all stinkin’ adorable!