Cats Didn't Need Our Help to Become Domesticated

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iStock

Among domestic animals, cats are best known for their independence. With good reason: They have been living alongside humans for far longer than they've been domesticated. Felines lived side by side with humans for thousands of years before we finally began to influence their breeding, according to new research (via Smithsonian). Whereas it has been 40,000-odd years since we started domesticating dogs, selective breeding of cats may have started only in the medieval era.

Writing in Nature Ecology and Evolution, scientists from the University of Leuven in Belgium and the Institut Jacques Monod in Paris (among many other institutions) analyzed cat DNA from ancient and modern cats from Europe, north and east Africa, and southwest Asia, looking at samples dating back 9000 years. They got their samples from the bones and teeth from more than 200 cat remains from Stone Age sites, Viking graves, and Egyptian tombs.

There is plenty of evidence that cats and humans have lived together for millennia, like a cat skeleton buried with a person in Cyprus around 7500 BCE and skeletons of cats buried in an Egyptian cemetery from around 3700 BCE. But the "evidence points to a commensal relationship between cats and humans lasting thousands of years before humans exerted substantial influence on their breeding," they write.

Domestication came in two waves, according to this research. Of five different subspecies of wildcat that originated all over the world, domestic cats only belong to one: Felis silvestris lybica, the African wildcat. When the first farmers in the Fertile Crescent began to store grain from their fields, wildcats flocked to hunt the mice that were attracted to the food stores. Farmers likely began to tame these cats, realizing that they could keep rodents away from the food supply. These cats from the Middle East then started to spread into Europe.

Several thousand years later, ancient Egyptian cats began to spread out across what is now Turkey, Bulgaria, and other places, becoming a more common type than the Middle Eastern cats that had previously dominated the population. Egyptian cats traveled throughout the world thanks to shipping, because boats needed feline sailors to keep rats from chewing through their ropes and eating their food on board. Egyptian cat DNA showed up in samples from as far north as a Viking port on the Baltic Sea, so it's likely that they were taken on trade routes to northern Europe.

Unlike with dogs, though, it seems that people were employing cats as mousers but not selecting specific aesthetic traits. People haven't been breeding cats until quite recently—just about 700 years ago. In order to pinpoint the spread of domestication by humans (which is a contentious thing to define, as house cats are still very similar genetically to their wild cousins), the researchers followed the spread of the genetic change that leads to blotched tabby markings; because the coloration is due to a recessive gene mutation, its proliferation was probably due to humans breeding for that pattern. (It doesn't show up in wildcat populations.) According to the scientists' samples, the allele for this pattern didn't show up until the medieval era, around 1300 CE, when it was present in what is now Turkey. It would take a long time before humans really began choosing their cats for their appearance. Breeding for looks didn't really take off until the 19th century.

Even now, cats are much more like their wild counterparts than dogs are. They may be tame, but thanks to their ability to live in harmony with humans while remaining independent, they've managed to retain many of the physical and genetic characteristics of their wild brethren.

[h/t Smithsonian]

Divers Swim With What Could Be the Biggest Great White Shark Ever Filmed

iStock.com/RamonCarretero
iStock.com/RamonCarretero

New pictures and video taken by divers show what could possibly be the largest great white shark ever caught on camera, CNN Travel reports.

Deep Blue, a 50-plus-year-old great white first documented 20 years ago, was spotted off the coast of Hawaii recently in a rare close encounter. Divers were filming tiger sharks feeding on a sperm whale carcass south of Oahu when Deep Blue swam up and began scratching herself on their boat. They accompanied the shark in the water for the rest of the day, even getting close enough to touch her at times.


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"She swam away escorted by two rough-toothed dolphins who danced around her over to one of my [...] shark research vessels and proceeded to use it as a scratching post, passing up feeding for another need," Ocean Ramsey, one of the divers, wrote in an Instagram post.


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Deep Blue is roughly 20 feet long and weighs an estimated 2 tons—likely making her one of the largest great whites alive. (The record for biggest great white shark ever is often disputed, with some outlets listing an alleged 37-foot shark recorded in the 1930s as the record-holder.)

Deep Blue looks especially wide in these photos, leading some to suspect she's pregnant. Swimming so close to great whites is always dangerous, especially when they're feeding, but older, pregnant females tend to be more docile.

Though great white sharks are the largest predatory sharks in the ocean, sharks of Deep Blue's size are seldom seen, and they're filmed alive even less often, making this a remarkable occurrence.

[h/t CNN Travel]

The Psychology Behind Kids' L.O.L. Surprise! Doll Obsession

Jack Taylor, Getty Images
Jack Taylor, Getty Images

Isaac Larian, the founder and CEO of toymaker MGA Entertainment, is an insomniac. Fortunately for him, that inability to sleep forced him to get up out of bed one night—a move that ended up being worth $4 billion.

Larian’s company is the architect of L.O.L. Surprise!, a line of dolls with a clever conceit. The product, which retails for about $10 to $20, is encased in a ball-shaped plastic shell and buried under layers of packaging, forcing children to tear through a gauntlet of wrapping before they’re able to see it. The inspiration came on that highly profitable sleepless night, which Larian spent watching unboxing videos on YouTube. It resulted in the first toy made for a generation wired for delayed gratification.

The dolls first went on sale in test markets at select Target stores in late 2016. MGA shipped out 500,000 of them, all of which sold out within two months. A Cabbage Patch Kid-esque frenzy came the following year. By late 2018, L.O.L. Surprise! (the acronym stands for the fancifully redundant Little Outrageous Little) had moved 800 million units, accounted for seven of the top 10 toys sold in the U.S., and was named Toy of the Year by the Toy Association. Videos of kids and adults unboxing them garner millions of views on YouTube, which is precisely where Larian knew his marketing would be most effective.

A woman holds a L.O.L. Surprise doll and packaging in her hand
Cindy Ord, Getty Images for MGA Entertainment

The dolls themselves are nothing revolutionary. Once freed from their plastic prisons, they stare at their owner with doe-eyed expressions. Some “tinkle,” while others change color in water. They can be dressed in accessories found in the balls or paired with tiny pets (which also must be "unboxed"). Larger bundles, like last year’s $89.99 L.O.L. Bigger Surprise! capsule, feature a plethora of items, each individually wrapped. It took a writer from The New York Times 59 minutes to uncover everything inside.

This methodical excavation is what makes L.O.L. Surprise! so appealing to its pint-sized target audience. Though MGA was advised that kids wouldn’t want to buy something they couldn’t see, Larian and his executives had an instinctual understanding of what child development experts already knew: Kids like looking forward to things.

Dr. Rachel Barr, director of Georgetown University’s Early Learning Project, told The Atlantic that unboxing videos tickle the part of a child’s brain that enjoys anticipation. By age 4 or 5, they have a concept of “the future,” or events that will unfold somewhere other than the present. However, Barr said, they’re also wary of being scared by an unforeseen outcome. In an unboxing video, they know the payoff will be positive and not, say, a live tarantula.

L.O.L. Surprise! is engineered to prolong that anticipatory joy, with kids peeling away wrapping like an onion for up to 20 minutes at a time. The effect is not entirely novel—baseball card collectors have been buying and unwrapping card packs without knowing exactly what’s inside for decades—but paired with social media, MGA was able to strike oil. The dolls now have 350 licensees making everything from bed sheets to apparel. Collectors—or their parents—can buy a $199.99 doll house. So-called “boy toys” are now lurking inside the wrappers, with one, the mohawk-sporting Punk Boi, causing a mild stir for being what MGA calls “anatomically correct.” His tiny plastic genital area facilitates a peeing function.

Whether L.O.L. Surprise! bucks conventional toy trends and continues its popularity beyond a handful of holiday seasons remains to be seen. Already, MGA is pushing alternative products like Poopsie Slime Surprise, a unicorn that can be fed glitter and poops a viscous green slime. An official unboxing video has been viewed 4.2 million times and counting.

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