Friday, December 02, 2005

Lions and Tigers and Cats, Oh My!

I've spent quite a bit of time recently thinking about the ways in which we classify things and describe the world around us. For instance, the various classifications we use to label books and movies and other stories: Romance, Western, Science Fiction, and the like. I'll have more on that subject in an upcoming blog (hopefully). What I'm interested in now is the classification of animals, specifically, the classification of animals in terms of a creationist world view, and even more specifically, cats.

In creationist terms, a baramin is a "created kind". When God created the animals, he told them to reproduce "after their kind". Therefore, a baramin would be all the animals decended from that original created pair. All bears, therefore, would be descended from one original bear pair; all elephants would be descended form one original elephant pair. Classification of animals should therefore be easy: all animals descended from an original created pair would be one baramin.

In practice, however, it's not so simple to tell which animals are descended from the same pair. Just as different human family groups have developed different skin colours and such since Creation and the Flood, animals have also developed certain family differences. Take the dog family, for instance: the Chihuahua and the St. Bernard are very much different in size, colouration, and just about everything else, but they are still both dogs. If it were not for the size difference, they could mate and produce offspring. Wolves and coyotes have also been known to mate with dogs and produce offspring, meaning that wolves, coyotes, and dogs were all descended from one wolfish-doggish animal pair, making them all part of the same baramin or kind.

The easiest way to tell if two animals are part of the same baramin is if they can hybridize or mate and produce offspring. However, the opposite is not true: just because two animals can't mate, doesn't mean they're not both descended from one original pair.

Which brings me back to cats. Last weekend I went home to visit my parents, and came back with a box full of cards, each card having a different animal on the front, and a whole bunch of facts about that animal on the back. I was looking through the cat section, and sorting them. There are two main divisions of the cat family: the big cats like the lion and the tiger, etc., and the small cats, like the house cat and the ocelot and others. I knew that the four main big cats (lion, tiger, leopard and jaguar) could all interbreed -- you always hear about ligers and tigons and such. That meant they were all the same baramin, descended from one ancestral pair. But what about domestic cats? It seemed strange that they should seem so similar and yet not be related. And yet I had heard somewhere that they weren't. I decided to find out.

I went to the Internet (the repository of all knowledge known to man, if you can figure out the right search words) and looked around for hybridization experiments involving cats. The first thing I found was that my vague memory was correct: there had never been a successful interbreeding between a domestic cat and a big cat such as a lion or a leopard. There were, however, some other interesting hybridizations: a mountain lion (or cougar or puma or whatever you want to call it) had successfully interbred with an ocelot, which is a much smaller cat. And a leopard had successfully interbred with a mountain lion. This made me think: if a mountain lion and a ocelot are from the same baramin, and a mountian lion and a leopard are from the same baramin, doesn't that mean that the leopard and the ocelot are also from the same baramin, even though they can no longer interbreed? And if so, what other animals has an ocelot been able to interbreed with?

Long story short, I came up with the following sequence:

The lion, tiger, jaguar, and leopard are all able to interbreed.
The leopard has been bred with the mountain lion.
The mountain lion has been bred with the ocelot.
The ocelot has been bred with the margay.
The margay has been bred with the domestic cat!

This means that, when God created the world, he made one pair of cats. After the flood, this one species/baramin split off into many different groups and many different sizes.

It also means that, when your cute little pet cat prowls around looking for all the world like a miniature tiger, you're not all that far off the mark.

More information on creation biology can be found at Answers in Genesis and the Baraminology Study Group. That second website I just found today; it has some very interesting articles on this very topic.