There’s a research team for everything. Today, a new theory is being floated that could explain why your pet is so darn cute.

According to researchers, household pets tend to have several unique physical characteristics. These include floppy ears, white fur patches, younger faces and smaller jaws. This set of traits was first observed by Charles Darwin more than 140 years ago.

The research team believes the traits may be the result of a group of developing stem cells known as the “neural crest” and could be linked to the domestication of animals.

The study was published in the journal Genetics.

What are “neural crest” cells? They form near the spinal cord in developing vertebrate embryos. “As the embryo matures, the cells migrate to different parts of the body and give rise to many tissue types.” The hypothesis by the research team proposes that the development or migration of neural crest cells is impaired compared to an animal’s wild ancestor.

“Because Darwin made his observations just as the science of genetics was beginning, the domestication syndrome is one of the oldest problems in the field,” Adam Wilkins, from the Humboldt University of Berlin and a co-author of the study, said in a statement. “So it was tremendously exciting when we realized that the neural crest hypothesis neatly ties together this hodge-podge of traits.”

The theory could also explain similar changes seen in domesticated birds and fish.

“This interesting idea based in developmental biology brings us closer to solving a riddle that’s been with us a long time. It provides a unifying hypothesis to test and brings valuable insight into the biology of domestication,” says Mark Johnston, Editor-in-Chief of GENETICS.

The theory hasn’t been tested yet, but that could come soon as researchers map the genes in domesticated animals.

So, when you pet your dog or cat today, know that domestication syndrome may be the reason why he/she is so cute.

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