Skulls shed new light on the evolution of the cat

July 10, 2012, University of Bristol
Skulls shed new light on the evolution of the cat
Fossil skull and lower jaws of a sabre-toothed cat, Smilodon fatalis, from the La Brea tar pits of California, USA. Image by Simon Powell, School of Earth Sciences

( -- Modern cats diverged in skull shape from their sabre-toothed ancestors early in their evolutionary history and then followed separate evolutionary trajectories, according to new research from the University of Bristol published today in PLoS ONE.

The study also found that the separation between modern and big cats such as lions and tigers is also deeply rooted.

Dr Manabu Sakamoto and Dr Marcello Ruta in the School of Earth Sciences studied the of extinct sabre-toothed cats, modern (conical-toothed) cats and prehistoric ‘basal’ cats (ancestors of modern cats).  This is the first time these three different types of cats have been analysed together in a single dataset.

The researchers quantified skull shape by taking various measurements, adjusting these measurements for size differences, then investigating the distribution of cat skulls in shape-space.  By estimating ancestral positions through shape-space and time, they investigated patterns of skull shape evolution across the cat family tree.

They found an early and conspicuous divergence between the conical-toothed cats and sabre-toothed cats, with all sabre-toothed cats being more closely related to each other than they were to modern conical-toothed cats.

There was also a marked separation between modern small-medium cats (that is, the domestic cat and its close relatives, the cheetah, puma, ocelot, serval and lynx) and modern (such as the lion, tiger, leopard and jaguar), with a divergence in skull shape early in their .  This means that small-medium cats and large cats followed different with respect to skull shape.

Dr Sakamoto said: “Our study is the first to determine the interrelationships between modern conical-toothed cats, sabre-toothed cats, and some basal cats.

“It also highlights how simple measurements can be used not only to investigate shape-space distribution, but also to successfully discriminate and identify different cat species – this could be useful for museums who may have as yet unidentified cat specimens in their collections.

“Lastly, our results show that differences in cat skull shape have deeply rooted evolutionary histories, first between the sabre-toothed and conical-toothed cats, and then between small-medium and large cats.”

Explore further: Evolution of skull and mandible shape in cats

More information: ‘Convergence and Divergence in the Evolution of Cat Skulls: Temporal and Spatial Patterns of Morphological Diversity’ by Manabu Sakamoto and Marcello Ruta in PLoS ONE.

Related Stories

Evolution of skull and mandible shape in cats

July 30, 2008

In a new study published in the online-open access journal PLoS ONE, Per Christiansen at the Zoological Museum in Copenhagen, Denmark, reports the finding that the evolution of skull and mandible shape in sabercats and modern ...

Why you should never arm wrestle a saber-toothed tiger

July 3, 2010

Saber-toothed cats may be best known for their supersized canines, but they also had exceptionally strong forelimbs for pinning prey before delivering the fatal bite, says a new study in the journal PLoS ONE.

A cat's game of hide and seek

August 2, 2011

Hiding may play an important role in relaxing cats according to University of Queensland honours student Mark Owens.

Cats for those with an allergy

September 15, 2006

A San Diego company says it has begun breeding hypoallergenic cats, just the thing for anyone allergic to the animals.

Double dip recession spells trouble for cats

May 2, 2012

Figures released today, and backed up by a recent University of Bristol study from the School of Veterinary Sciences, show an ever decreasing number of people coming forward to adopt cats, while the number of people needing ...

Recommended for you

Digging deep into distinctly different DNA

January 22, 2018

A University of Queensland discovery has deepened our understanding of the genetic mutations that arise in different tissues, and how these are inherited.

Computational method speeds hunt for new antibiotics

January 22, 2018

A team of American and Russian computer scientists has developed an algorithm that can rapidly search massive databases to discover novel variants of known antibiotics—a potential boon in fighting antibiotic resistance.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Jul 10, 2012
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
5 / 5 (14) Jul 10, 2012
Such nonsense. Finding one skull and trying to make all kind of evolutionary statements from it!

Good thing then that they didn't use just one skull - which is stated quite clearly in the article.

No, cats did not evolve in the sense of random mutations.

Good thing then that the article does not state any such thing.

Please read the article before commenting. That should be the minimum courtesy given to the authors and anyone who has to read your posts (and it also would make you look MUCH less like a fool)

5 / 5 (8) Jul 10, 2012
Such nonsense. Finding one skull and trying to make all kind of evolutionary statements from it! No, cats did not evolve in the sense of random mutations. Please study and promote real science, not this fictional evolution junk.

studied the skull shape of extinct sabre-toothed cats, modern (conical-toothed) cats and prehistoric basal cats (ancestors of modern cats).

That's at least three. I'm sure there was more than one of each of those types...
5 / 5 (9) Jul 10, 2012
No, cats did not evolve in the sense of random mutations.

All sorts of wonderful things happen in nature due to mutations, gene duplication errors, etc. For an overview, see:

A. Force, et al., "Preservation of duplicate genes by complementary, degenerative mutations," Genetics 151: 1531-1545, 1999
V. E. Prince and F. B. Pickett, "Splitting pairs: The diverging fates of duplicated genes", Nature Rev. Genetics 3: 827-837
J. Piatgorsky and G. Wistow, "The recruitment of crystallins: New functions precede gene duplication", Science 252: 1078-1079, 1991
A. L. Huges, "The evolution of functionally novel proteins after gene duplication", Proc. Royal Soc. London Ser. B: Biol. Sci. 256: 119-124, 1994
M. Lynch and J. S. Conery, "The evolutionary fate and consequences of duplicate genes", Science 290: 1151-1154, 2000
P. Zhang, et al., "Different evolutionary patterns between young duplicate genes in the human genome", Genome Biol. 4: R56, 2003
4 / 5 (4) Jul 10, 2012
Huh. I think I have seen something similar before. Maybe this is a larger study.

And creationists shouldn't comment on science. They make Ceiling Cat cry!

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.