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Last Updated: Friday, 6 January 2006, 16:51 GMT
New cat family tree revealed
By Helen Briggs
BBC News science reporter

Cat (BBC)
Cats were domesticated 6,000 years ago
Modern cats have their roots in Asia 11 million years ago, according to a DNA study of wild and domestic cats.

The ancient ancestors of the 37 species alive today migrated across the globe, eventually settling in all continents except Antarctica, say scientists.

Eight major lineages emerged, including lions, ocelots and domestic cats.

The moggy is most closely related to the African and European wild cat and the Chinese desert cat, an international team reports in Science.

Warren Johnson of the National Cancer Institute in Frederick, Maryland, US, led the study.

He said they were able to trace the ancestry of all living cat species back to South East Asia some 11 million years ago.

We have a much better understanding of what makes a domestic cat a cat
Wayne Johnson
In a relatively small number of migrations, cats spread across the world, as land bridges sprang up between continents.

It turns out that the domestic cat is most closely related to the wild cats of Africa, Europe and China.

"You can take a look at your cat, that you share so much of your life with, and imagine that in the relatively recent evolutionary past, it was connected and related to species such as the European wild cat," Dr Johnson told the BBC News website.

"We now have a much better idea of where the domestic cat fits in with all of the 36 wild species and what ecological and geographical events led to the development of each one of these species," he added.

"Through that we have a much better understanding of what makes a domestic cat a cat and what evolutionary event distinguished the domestic cat from its ancestor and what it retains today."

Top carnivore

The family history of the cat has been notoriously murky in the past, in part because the few discovered cat fossils are very difficult to tell apart.

Lion (Science)
Lions and other "roaring cats" diverged first
The international team took a different approach by sampling DNA from living cats. They looked at both mitochondrial DNA - the scrap of DNA within the parts of the cell that generate energy and are passed along the maternal line - and DNA from the X and Y sex chromosomes.

A picture has emerged of a feline ancestor that wandered all over the world, becoming one of the most successful carnivore families.

The Panthera lineage, which includes the lion, jaguar, and tiger, emerged first. This was followed rapidly by a group of three Asian species - the bay cat, Asian golden cat and marbled cat; three African Species (caracal, African golden cat and serval) and the path that led to the New World ocelot.

More recently, four further lines branched off - the pathways to the lynx, puma, leopard cat and domestic cat.

The scientists believe the common ancestor of modern cats migrated to Africa from Asia six to eight million years ago, giving rise to the caracal lineage.

Cats then crossed the Bering land bridge to North America about eight million years ago, later moving into South America by the Panamanian land bridge.

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