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Cat Evolution & Domestication

Cat evolution has been going on for a long time… longer than humans on earth. And when the humans finally showed up, the cat let us in right away.

Noah may have had cats on the Ark he built for the great flood, but were they the ancestor of what we know as the domestic cat of today’s world? It can be confusing to think that everything in the world is everything that has ever been in light of so much evidence to the contrary, namely fossil discoveries. I think the story of Noah is meant to convey an understanding of greater meaning than that which tells of the re-sowing of life after a particularly heavy rain. Scholars generally place the flood sometime in the 2nd and 3rd millennium BC, or about 4 – 5 thousand years ago. That was about the time when the Egyptians domesticated the first cats. Did they board? And how safe did the rats and mice feel? Were the cats guardians of the food stores in the ark that everyone depended on until dry land was underfoot again? And how did these koalas get on the ship if they were confined to the Australian continent? Really, the best 5000 years can do is raise a lot of questions.

The great equalizer in any conversation is time. Time changes everything, including the diameter of a species. As humans spread around the world, their skin changed color, food habits adapted to new environments, conflict with others and migration occurred for valuable land that yielded resources favorable to life, eg food/grain plants for sustenance.

Survival does not condone failure. One either survives… or one doesn’t. It is an identifying characteristic of “life” that longs to survive. Another survival feature is that individual members of a species do not, or rather do so only for a limited time. A lifetime as we call it. Only large groups or classifications of rocks, trees, and other sentient beings, including that of any species, can survive indefinitely if successful.

The fossil record of cat evolution is extremely sparse. There is evidence that traces the cat back to about 200 million years ago, with cat evolution beginning when it diverged from reptiles. From that point scientists divided the cat family into two major groups. Feline cats which includes all modern cat species and extinct sagittal cats. The “Family Felidae” or Feline cats are grouped into three Genera:

  • Panther – Lions and tigers and… panthers, or roaring cats.
  • Felis – Lynx, ocelots, your Fluffy and other small cats.
  • Acinonyx – or the cheetah. They are in a group of their own because they can’t retract their claws like all the other cats.

Originally, cat evolution charts had cats divided into two main groups: big cats and small cats. The distinction was based on the size and shape of their skulls. But it was discovered that the division was not sustainable, as studies eventually showed a gradual transition of skull features from smaller to larger cats. There was essentially no separate discrimination based on these criteria.

Recently, DNA studies have provided insights into the evolution of cats as they migrated from Asia to North America via the Bering Sea Bridge that appeared about 9 million years ago. These panther-like predators first appeared in Asia about 2 million years before the Earth Bridge was exposed by falling sea levels. Cats are considered, next to humans, to be the most successful hunters. They would have followed migrating prey and easily survived the challenges of roaming vast areas as they explored new environments. (Think of the kitten squirming around an unexplored bush or strange new object, either in or out of her territory) Later, several American lineages of newly evolved cats returned to Asia across the Bridge, and with each migration, evolutionary forces transformed these cats in a rainbow of species ranging from lions and leopards to lynxes, ocelots and today’s domestic cat. Where were the people right now? Well, it’s nowhere to be found…yet. Anatomically modern humans evolved only in Africa, between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago, according to most experts using inferences based on mitochondrial DNA data. Obviously, cat evolution has long been in history and exists in this world.

About 10,000 years ago, as humans stopped being hunter-gatherers and started farming the land, the relationship between humans and cats began. Until then cats inhabited most parts of the world except the Arctic, Antarctica, Australia and the inhospitable regions of the tundra. As the first modern humans migrated from central Africa to Europe and Asia, it would have been impossible for cats and humans not to have crossed paths. But, when humans began to cultivate crops, certain species of cats and humans began to have a dependent relationship, creating an interesting, if not fatal, twist in cat evolution.

Early on the young farmers found that food storage, especially grain storage, became a magnet for small rodents such as rats and mice. Archaeological evidence supports this, as uncovered storage ruins are dominated by rodent skeletons buried within the storage remains. It can easily be assumed that the smaller cats followed their prey to the farms and probably could not resist the gathering of mice and rats that these early silos offered. Humans, being intelligent creatures themselves, would have noticed the dislike that rodents and cats had (have) for each other. An early farmer might have come across a litter of kittens and taken them home to try and raise them to protect his hard work from the fields.

Most likely, the first young kittens would have retained most of their wild nature and maintained a “safe” distance from their human benefactor. But as generations of cats had more human contact, especially being handled by humans as kittens, they would have become tolerant and amenable to humans in cat interactions, perhaps even sleeping in their home. Conjectured in this way, the first stages of domestication may have begun. Two cat species were most successful in adapting to this new relationship, Felis Silvestris and Felis Lybica. Silvestris became more adaptable to the European environment and climate while Lybica preferred the Middle East.

The early Egyptians had multiple deities and these gods were attributed with animal qualities. The main god of Egypt was the sun god Ra, symbolized by a lion. Ra is said to rule the world during the day by shining from a sunlit chariot that travels across the sky from dawn to dusk. At night he fell into darkness where he was vulnerable to his enemies. But having the qualities of a lion, he had the vision of a cat that could see in the dark to better protect himself. Bast was known as the goddess of fertility, birth and family who was also symbolized by a cat. The Egyptians did not fail to notice how strong the maternal instinct is in cats when caring for their kittens. Cats were buried with the pharaohs, and commoners who had cats in their care were even given their own cemeteries.

It was after the rise of the Roman Empire that cats arrived in Europe as domesticated animals. Cats also lost their ‘god’ status and took on the more practical role of ‘pet’. By then the cat-mouse-man triangle was pretty well established, and as humans migrated, cultivating the world as they went, the cat and mouse went with them. Domestic cats traveled the Spice Routes to Asia and sailed the seas to the Americas. Wherever they have gone, cats have created populations not only by interbreeding with their own species, but also by interbreeding with native species they encountered along the way. The result was a plethora of coat colors, hair lengths and coat patterns that identify cats today.

The effects of domestication on the evolution of the cat can be summarized as follows:

  • Period of Competition (before 7,000 BC) characterized by wild cats competing with hunter-gatherer humans for birds and small mammals.
  • Community Period (7,000 – 4,000 BC) characterized by “semi-domestic” cats feeding on vermin around and within the first villages.
  • Period of early domestication (4,000 – 3,000 BC) with the restriction of cats to cult status
  • Period of Full Domestication (3,000 BC – today) the popularization of animal husbandry and the spread of cats from Egypt*

The close coexistence that cats and humans began when civilizations began to form and we as humans settled down from our hunter-gatherer wanderings could be mistaken for a chance encounter. Our early farming ancestors had to solve many problems, the solutions of which we now take for granted. But the cat has not forgotten its contribution to our success and this may even be due to its seemingly proud nature. After all, the interconnectedness of everything in this world is only surpassed by human arrogance to reject such an idea by believing in our own mental superiority, which then only perpetuates a belief in our disconnection from nature. Fortunately, only humans are capable of such murmurs. Cats never forgot their roots. Roots buried deep in cat evolution, domestication and time.

There are times when I find myself, like many others I suspect, lost in the solitude that results in the recognition of the separateness of existence or the distance that seems to exist between each of us in this life. That’s when I can only look up at the sky, marveling at the distance between me and the hellish furnaces that are the stars. Even at this great distance, which is measured in the time it takes light to travel in one year, I am comforted by the knowledge that we are all made of the same stuff pouring out of these factories of light. We are so interconnected…yet it is blindly taken for granted as we pursue our inflated activities of living each day. Returning to this place, my kitty is lying on my lap and I stroke her back while she quietly accepts the affection. It doesn’t take much for us to reverse our roles and put myself in her shoes, to even be on her back, enjoying my pounding on her. And, with a little imagination, I can trace the path of cat evolution in my mind.

*Courtesy of Feline Consultancy – Wiltshire, UK

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