International research reveals that big cats experienced speedy genome changes that turned them into carnivores, although, surprisingly, they still share more than 95% of their genetic information with domestic cats. Scientists mapped the genome of a 9 year old male Amur tiger, one of the world's most endangered species, and used a 'close species comparative genomics' approach, processing genomic sequences from four other panther species: the white Bengal tiger, the African lion, the white African lion and the snow leopard.
The study, published in Nature Communications, studies big-cat genomes and makes comparative analyses with the known genes from humans, dogs and mice. It concludes that all of them reached their superior muscle strength, the capability to digest meat and a keen sense of smell, through rapid adaptations in their genetic.
The team was led by Yun Sung Cho at the Personal Genomics Institute, Genome Research Foundation in Suwon, South Korea, in collaboration with colleagues from China, the US, Russia, Namibia, South Africa, the Netherlands, Denmark, Saudi Arabia, India and Mongolia.
Scientists found that wild and domestic cats have 5,882 genes in common with amino-acid characteristics exclusive to their feline lineage. Among them, 1,376 have specific modifications to enable big cats to have a carnivorous diet and also strong muscle fibre.
This indicates that most of this evolution happened with the earliest common ancestor of big felines. Speaking to National Geographic, genome expert Jonf Blank, one of the coauthors of the report, said that big cats could "have evolved to fill a very particular carnivorous niche in the environment, that is predicated on the advantages of hunting that these genes provide."
Amur tigers were once found throughout the Russian Far East, northern China, and the Korean peninsula. But by the 1940s no more than 40 individuals remaining in the wild due to the hunting. Nowaday, after conservation policies there are about 400 and represent the largest unfragmented tiger population in the world.