Where did Australia’s cats come from?
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Where did Australia’s cats come from?

Cute and cuddly as they may be, domestic cats are still deadly predators, and their introduction into new territories can spell disaster for native populations. In Australia, scientists believe that cats (like the one seen slinking above) have played a large part in the local extinction of many small native mammals, including select species of sugar gliders and mice, since their arrival on the continent. Unraveling how the felines arrived in the country—and when—could give researchers a better understanding of their impact on the ecosystem. In a new study, published today in BMC Evolutionary Biology, researchers analyzed DNA from 269 cats from six different locations in mainland Australia and seven surrounding islands. Despite existing theories, which postulated that cats may have arrived in the area as early as 1650 onboard the ships of sea cucumber fishers, the DNA analysis suggests that cats arrived in Australia from Europe in the early 1800s. This time period coincides with European settlement of the area, and the researchers believe that the felines arrived on boats where they were used to control rodents and other pests during the voyage. The researchers report that they found no evidence of a distinct cat lineage from Asia, but that Asian cats may have begun breeding with the European founders later in time as cats were ferried between the two continents along trade routes. Because of their isolated nature, the island cat populations (including on Dirk Hartog, Flinders, and Tasmania) have had less opportunity to mate with domestic breeds or other local populations that have since been brought to the region. As a result, the researchers conclude that the island populations more closely reflect the original founding cats, whereas the genetics on the mainland have become more muddled with time.