The Ancient Rivalry Between Cats and Dogs

The PBS documentary series, Nature, recently featured a 2 part episode about cats.  During the first episode the narrator claimed cats caused the extinction of at least 40 species of dogs after the felines colonized North America.  I knew there had to be a journal article behind this claim, so I googled “cats caused extinction of 40 dog species.”  I found the paper (referenced below) and also discovered 90% of media outlets misreported the conclusions of the study.  Cats did contribute to the extinction of many dog species, but competition with other dog species and the extinct carnivores known as Barbourofelidae were also responsible for the extinctions.

Dogs originally evolved in North America, while cats originated in Asia.  About 40 million years ago a land bridge began to periodically emerge across the Bering Strait, allowing cats and dogs to colonize each other’s continent of origin.  When cats first colonized North America there were 3 subfamilies of dogs–the Hesperocyoninae, the Borophaginae (or bone-eating dogs), and the Caninae.  The Hesperocyoninae and the Borophaginae are extinct.  All living species of dogs, jackals, wolves, and foxes belong to the Caninae subfamily.

The scientists who authored the below referenced paper collected data about climate change, and the fossil occurrences of predators including Felidae (cats), Amphicyonidae (the extinct bear-dogs), Barbourofelidae, Nimravidae (false saber-tooths), and the Ursidae (true bears).  They used statistics to determine whether climate change or competition with other carnivores caused the extinction of some species of dogs.  They concluded the extinction of 1 subfamily of dogs, the Hesperocyoninae, was caused by competition with another subfamily of dogs, the Borophaginae.  Cooler climate may have contributed to the extinction of some Borophaginae species 15 million years ago.  Finally, competition with Barbourofelidae, cats, and the surviving subfamily of dogs (the caninae) drove the remaining species of Borophaginae into extinction.

Image result for Barbourofelidae

The Barbourofelidae are an extinct group of carnivores distantly related to cats but different enough to be classified as a separate family.

The species of dogs that did become extinct were often cat-like in build and probably occupied ecological niches preferred by cats.  So cats were just better than these cat-like canids at surviving in these niches.  But the Caninae were also better adapted to survive in the constantly evolving environment.  The cat and dog species that emerged from this age-old competition have achieved a kind of stalemate.  Representatives of both naturally occur on every continent but Antarctica and Australia.  (Dingos were brought to Australia by man.)  1 species of each–Canis familiaris and Felis catus —live in our homes and compete for our affections today.

Image result for cats and dogs playing together

References:

Silvestri, D.; A. Antonelli, N. Salamin, and T. Quentas

“The Role of Clade Competition in the Diversification of North American Canids”

PNAS 112 (28) 2015

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One Response to “The Ancient Rivalry Between Cats and Dogs”

  1. ina puustinen-westerholm Says:

    and on that note..may we all..who understand..these groups..work to bring back, and protect..positive life forms..today…as we ‘orient’..upon the political failings..which threaten..a kindly..health oriented world..here in America..and..around the world.

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