The Naming of Cats is a Serious Matter.

Washington Post reports on the one of the deepest mysteries of the animal world – the strange history of the domestic cat:

In one of the most comprehensive explorations of cats’ origins to date, [Leslie A.] Lyons [of the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California at Davis] and her colleagues spent about five years collecting feline DNA, poking behind the whiskers of more than 1,100 Persians, Siamese, street cats and household tabbies around the world to swab inside their mouths. The genetic samples came from 22 breeds of fancy cats, mostly in the United States, along with an assortment of feral and pet cats in Korea, China, Kenya, Israel, Turkey, Vietnam, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Egypt, Italy, Finland, Germany, the United States and Brazil.

By analyzing 39 genetic signposts in the samples, the researchers were able to investigate a variety of questions, including which breeds are most closely related and where they most likely originated.

The first thing the group did was confirm a report published last June in the journal Science that the domestication of cats about 10,000 years ago appeared to have occurred in an area known as the Fertile Crescent, which stretches from Turkey to northern Africa and to modern-day Iraq and Iran.

“Our data support the Fertile Crescent, specifically Turkey, as one of the origin sites for cats,” said Lyons, who published her findings in the January issue of the journal Genomics. “Turkey was part of the Fertile Crescent and hence was one of the earliest areas for agricultural development.”

Despite its name, the Persian, the oldest recognized breed, looks as though it actually arose in Western Europe and not Persia, which today is Iran.

“If it came from Iran, you would think it would look like cats from Turkey and Israel,” she said. Instead, the Persian “looked more like a Western European cat.”

When the researchers examined the genes of what are thought to be distinct breeds, they were unable to find significant differences among many of them.

“An example would be Persian and exotic shorthairs. When you look at those two breeds, you can’t distinguish them from one another” by their genes, she said.

The same was true for the Burmese and the Singapura, as well as the Siamese and the Havana brown. While Havana browns are considered a separate breed in the United States, European cat breed associations consider them a color variation of Siamese.

“Some people will say, ‘Ha, ha. I told you so.’ Some other people will be disappointed,” Lyons said.

Just to see how weird this is, here’s the Siamese, and here’s the genetically identical Havana brown.