The big, furry, doglike Maine coon cat enjoys a rich history in our state, and it is in fact the state cat of Maine. But is it from here originally or is the breed from away?
Well, short answer, yes, Maine coons are from Maine. But as with all things in life, their origins are more complicated than one might think.
There are several widely circulated theories on the origins of coon cats, some more plausible than others. We’ve brought in an expert — Dr. Christine Hoyt, owner of the Cats on Call Hospital in Scarborough — to debunk them, and to give us the actual science on Maine coons’ origins.
Viking cats: This theory postulates that Norwegian skogkatts — known in the U.S. as Norwegian forest cats — on Viking ships interbred with local cats during their shore leave. That’s supported by the fact that they look a lot alike, with tufted ears and paws and long hair. But Hoyt says this isn’t likely.
“There are some genetic similarities between the Norwegian forest cat, which is one of the ones that people point to it and say, ‘oh, this is the Maine coon from there,’” she said. “But what they’re closest to is the good old long-haired cats that are found in England.”
Hoyt said it’s really environmental pressures that make the cats look alike rather than relatedness.
Bobcats: This one is, essentially, that Maine coons are the result of interbreeding between the American bobcat and domestic cats, possibly because bobcats also have tufted ears and paws. Or, even less likely, cats and raccoons, hence the name coon cat. For anyone with even the most basic understanding of animal husbandry, this is a no-brainer. Hoyt said cats can’t interbreed with raccoons or bobcats — although many people on the Internet would say otherwise, with respect to the bobcats.
And there were two theories with which Hoyt wasn’t really familiar. They both seem a little specific, though.
“Let them eat cake” cats: Some say Maine coons are the result of an effort to smuggle Marie Antoinette — yes, that one — out of France during the revolution, by a Capt. Samuel Clough. The ship was carrying, among other things, six of Antoinette’s pet longhaired cats. When she was seized before the ship sailed, Clough sailed off to America with the cats still on board.
Coon’s cats’ cats: Still others theorize that another sea captain, called Coon, traveled with several longhaired breed cats, which were popular in England at the time, and brought them onshore with him, where they made some new friendships with local cats. When longhaired kittens started showing up, they were called “Coon’s cats.”
The Real Truth
Is honestly not as exciting as some of the theories. But isn’t that the way things sometimes go? The fact is, Hoyt said, that Maine coons became what they are mostly through natural selection.
“What we’re sure is true is that the origins of these cats come from the Puritans, cats that came over from western and northern Europe to the Americas in the 1600-1700s, and that these animals are descendants of these cats,” she said.
So why do they look so much like Norwegian forest cats? Convergent evolution, Hoyt said. This is when selection pressures — in this case, the harsh climate — push two unrelated species to have similar qualities. For example, bats and birds have similar wings, although they’re not related. And humans and koalas both have fingerprints.
In this case, what we’re looking at is a very big cat with big feet, a thick double coat of fur and tufts of fur on its ears and between its toes. The usefulness of all that fur seems pretty obvious in a very cold climate like ours or Scandinavia’s.
Big, wide, snowshoelike feet also would help the cats survive the winter and, Hoyt said, bigger animals survive better in colder climates, known in biology as Bergmann’s Rule.
“It’s why bears are bigger in Alaska than they are even here, and if you look at the black bear in Maine versus the black bear in North Carolina, our bears are bigger,” she said.
And people have been selectively breeding Maine coons to make them larger since the late 19th century, so they’re now larger than they would be from purely natural pressures.
And What About the Extra Toes?
One of the things Maine coons are known for is having lots of toes on those big feet, a condition called “polydactylism.” Probably the most famous examples of this would be Ernest Hemingway’s cats, whose descendants still live at his former home — now a museum — in Key West, Florida.
But, in fact, Hemingway’s cats weren’t Maine coons and, Hoyt said, Maine coons don’t actually have any more toes on average than any other group of cats — although their big feet may make it look like they do.
Polydactyl Maine coons may have become less common because polydactyl cats were considered a bit witchy during the Salem Witch Trials of the late 17th century, so they were frequently killed before they had a chance to reproduce and pass on the trait. Selective breeding after the breed was officially recognized also made the trait less common.
Is My Cat a Maine Coon?
The Cat Fanciers’ Association estimates that the Maine coon is the second most popular breed in the country, measured by the number of kittens registered.
But a lot more people than that think their cat might be a Maine coon. Hoyt said she often encounters people who notice Maine coon-esque qualities in their cat, and want to know for sure.
“People bring me in the cat they found in the street, and they say ‘is this a Maine coon?’ And I say, ‘You know, it’s more likely that the Maine coon that somebody paid $500 for has got some of your cat’s genes in it than the other way around,’” she said. “I have cats in my practice that are probably the most magnificent example of a Maine coon, but they don’t have papers.”
In other words, because so many Maine coon features come from natural selection, they’re very likely to occur in cats that aren’t from a specifically Maine coon lineage. This is as opposed to, say, the Siamese cat, whose current distinctive appearance is the result of selective breeding — click here for more on the genetic differences among cats breeds.
So, in answer to the question: Um, maybe.
This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public Broadcasting Network.