Oliver Soden

A purring cat is not always contented

In his vast survey of felines wild and domestic, Jonathan Losos reveals, among much else, that a cat’s purr can convey hunger or panic as well as pleasure


Large cats cannot miaow. (Lions and tigers, I mean, not moggies who have overindulged on Whiskers Meaty Selection in Gravy.) The largest feline ever to have lived was a sabre-toothed cat in South America, which weighed nearly half a tonne. Female house cats can copulate up to 20 times a day when in the mood. Male cats have a bone in their penis. Cats are green-red colour blind. There are probably more than half a billion cats alive in the world at this moment.

These are gleanings merely from the footnotes of Jonathan Losos’s The Age of Cats, which is portly with information. The book, surveying cats’ evolutionary history, behavioural habits and potential future, has a lovely cast list of felines wild and domestic, large and small. Here are munchkins and cheetahs, Maine Coons and servals, all of which differ, genetically speaking, in the most trivial of ways. The scope is vast, moving across the centuries from Ancient Egypt and the Vikings to the era of GPS collars. Losos charts a gradual evolution, both natural and artificial, as cats – which are little changed from their wild, ancient ancestors – have worked out how best to live with us, and we with them.

Cats use a thesaurus of purrs to convey panic as well as delight, hunger as well as comfort

Losos is an eminent evolutionary biologist straying from his home turf (lizards, environmental adaptation of). His American publishers have retitled this book The Cat’s Meow, and the dual identity hints at the way it may tumble into a gap between readerships. Packaged for cat lovers, for whom the space devoted to evolutionary biology might be a slog, it will probably be best enjoyed by readers of ‘popular science’ – for whom 350 pages of feline history might also seem a whisker too devoted.

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