It’s enormous fun to look at cat evolution, because you get to look at cats. Even people who don’t like pet cats are impressed by cheetahs, lions, and tigers.
There are actually more cats out in the wild than most of us have ever dreamed of, including the gorgeous Asiatic golden cat shown at the top of this post.
Today we are going to look at all of them, except for Fluffy and its wildcat relatives. I’m saving them until next time for two reasons:
- The biological line between housecats and their ancestors – the wildcats (one word) – is blurry, so we need to check them out all together.
- We do need to talk about how cats evolved. Even though that happened to wild cats (two words) over millions of years, Fluffy’s history is helpful. Cat breeders have been intentionally messing with its genes for over a century. Is the process that has given us the tailless Manx and the bald Donskoy typical of all evolution? Tune in next time and find out!
The following eight sections are based on the eight genetic lineages that DNA sequencing consistently shows in the cat family. (Johnson and others, 2006; Nyakatura and Bininda-Emonds)
They aren’t presented in the order in which each group evolved – those dates come out differently for different researchers. So far, I think, the only consensus is that there are eight lineages.
The pictures have all been generously donated to either Creative Commons or the public domain by many generous photographers. Be sure to check out their links in the image credits at the end of this post!
Let’s start out with the lineage that contains the cat featured at the top of this post – the Asiatic golden cat, known locally as the “fire tiger.” (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
Then we’ll check out the big cats and the other six lineages.
The bay cat lineage
The glorious fire tiger is in here, but the namesake of this small group of Asian cats is its plainest-looking member.
By the way, in this lineage and in some of the others, a cat species will occasionally have more than one scientific first name. That’s because professional cat herders haven’t agreed yet on the cat’s genus.
This debate gets incredibly technical in the scientific literature, but we don’t need to get into it. Whenever the issue arises, I’ll just use both names and let the experts work it out.
Found only on the island of Borneo, bay cats are about as big as a large housecat, with extra-long tails. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002) They are one of the very few exceptions to the rule that forest-dwelling cats have spotted coats. (Allen and others)
That tattoo-like facial fur makes the fire tiger extremely photogenic! Don’t let the Buddha-like posture fool you – fire tigers are only medium sized, but they can bring down a water buffalo calf. The few that have been studied weighed up to 35 pounds (16 kilograms) and had a variety of coat colors. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
This cat lives in forests (Mattern and McLennan), and in the northern part of its range, its coat can be spotted or even striped. (Allen and others)
The size of a housecat, this very rare Southeast Asian forest dweller actually has quite a few big-cat physical characteristics. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
Its ankles also rotate 180 degrees, so it can grip with its hind claws to climb down trees head first (Kitchener and others), like this one is doing – Fluffy and all other cats but the margay can’t hold such a vertical crouch long enough to get their picture taken.
Marbled cats and the clouded leopards in the next gallery still show the primitive blotching coat pattern that evolved into spots and stripes. (Werdelin and others)
The big cat lineage
Here’s the glamour group!
It contains two or three genus names, depending on your reference source. Neofelis (clouded leopards) and Panthera (the rest of the big cats) are used by many authorities. (Johnson and others, 2006; Werdelin and others)
Some experts also give the snow leopard its own genus – Uncia. (Nyakatura and Bininda-Emonds; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
The big cats are sometimes called the roaring cats because they don’t purr, something many non-roaring cats can do. (Kitchener and others)
So here is a video to remind you that panthers aren’t included in the genus Panthera. There is purring in among all the other odd sounds!
Panthers, as we will see a little later, belong in the puma lineage, not with the big cats.
And we’re roarin’ to go with the big cats!
Clouded leopards are the oldest group of big cats (Werdelin and others), but this subspecies – Diardi – was only discovered a few years ago.
It lives in the forests of Sumatra, Borneo, and the Batu Islands, and perhaps on the Malay Peninsula, while the rest of the world’s clouded leopards live on the Asian mainland. One of Diardi’s signature features is smaller “clouds, ” i.e., blotches, on its coat. (Kitchener and others, 2006; Mattern and McLennan)
Here’s another look at the very primitive blotchy coat pattern that clouded leopards share with marbled cats.
Clouded leopards are about the size of a small leopard and muscular, but in a tree they are as agile as margays – the little Latin American arboreal specialists that we will meet in the ocelot gallery. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
Bengal tigers have the biggest fangs of any cat (Heske, Lab 19), but that’s because tigers are the biggest cats in the world. In proportion to body size, clouded leopards have the longest fangs of any living cat. (Cho and others; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
Spots, anyone? Cat experts call these groups of little black dots around a lighter center “rosettes.” Jaguars have them, too, but theirs often have a black dot in the center. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
The leopard has the widest range of any wild felid today – all across southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. There are at least nine known leopard populations, one in Africa and eight in Asia. (Uphyrkina and others)
Obviously, leopards live in a wide variety of habitats. (Mattern and McLennan) Their coat patterns vary according to region – semidesert, savanna, rainforest (this video of a leopard hunting in trees does show a kill, not graphically), or high country. (Uphyrkina and others)
This beautiful subspecies lives in the Hindu Kush and other mountainous regions up to around 17,000 feet (5200 meters) or so. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002; Uphyrkina and others).
Those paws can handle steep slopes and slippery rocks!
Its relatively fluffy fur resembles the snow leopard’s, but leopards are bigger. In fact, they are the largest spotted cats in Africa and Asia, though jaguars – the New World’s only native big cat – can be bigger. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002, 2014)
It would be confusing if jaguars and leopards lived on the same continent. See the black dot in some of the rosettes?
Look for jaguars in northern South America and parts of Central America and Mexico. There have also been some jaguar sightings recently in Arizona. These big cats once roamed what is now the US from Oregon to Pennsylvania. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002, 2014)
Like leopards, jaguars hunt at night and live in a variety of habitats, but you will never see a leopard swimming. Jaguars do it all the time. (Mattern and McLennan)
Jaguar size varies dramatically. The smallest ones weigh 70-80 pounds (31-37 kilograms) and live in Peru; the biggest ones, on the flatlands of Brazil and Venezuela, can weigh up to 225 pounds (102 kilograms)! (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2014)
Melanism (black/brownish fur coloring) is very common in jaguars. There are black leopards, too. In fact, 11 known cat species show it. (Eizirik and others; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002; Uphyrkina and others)
The genes involved aren’t always the same. For example, what makes this jaguar dark isn’t the same gene that’s responsible for black fur in a housecat. (Eizirik and others)
Black jaguars were once considered a separate species, but underneath that dark coloring they do have the same spotted coat. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
This lioness and cub are on the move – and lions can outrun us – but on the whole, these are the laziest wild cats around. Lions get about 19-20 hours of rest each day. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
Lionesses average about 42 inches (1.07 meters) high at the shoulder – taller than the male – but they are more lightly built, ‘only’ getting up to around 400 pounds (182 kilograms), compared to almost 500 pounds (225 kilograms) for the biggest males. (AZA)
Related females will hang together in a pride on the same hunting ground for many generations, if the group can hold it, while the males stick around only until they are beaten in a fight with other males. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2014)
Just young Leo, with a different color choice and apparently an admirable sense of environmental responsibility.
Yes, there are white lions, and white tigers, too. In addition to melanism, several cat species have more than one coat color option, but the white variation is extremely rare in the wild. (Eizirik and others; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2014)
A lion’s mane starts to grow in at around eleven months of age. During the process, lions can look pretty strange, especially when their fur is white. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2014)
A lion’s mane advertises its owner’s physical condition to potential mates as well as to adversaries. It provides some protection during a fight, and it also varies according to environmental conditions. Zoo lions have the thickest manes of all. (AZA)
This individual’s mane looks a little sparse, but he is probably in good fighting shape. We’re used to seeing African lions. See the fold of skin on his belly? That shows he is probably an . . .
Today most lions live in Africa, but a few hundred lions still dwell in an Indian forest preserve. (Werdelin and others)
The most obvious differences between this subspecies and their African relatives are the belly skin fold and scanty mane, as well as a longer tail tuft and a thicker coat. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
These three cats are all panting – that’s how all members of the order Carnivora cool off. This image was probably taken on a very hot day.
But one big-cat species has found other ways to cool off . . .
Tiger: Panthera tigris. All cats handle hot weather better than we do – their normal body temperature is two or three Fahrenheit degrees higher than ours. (Schmidt and Miller)
Tigers can swim (so can lions), but tigers also like to hang out in water. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
Range expansion is another cooling option . . .
Tigers live in every habitat from tropical lowlands to Siberia’s wintery woodlands. Northern species like these Amur tigers are the biggest, with recorded weights up to almost 600 pounds (260 kilograms). (Cho and others; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
This camera-trap view is not one you would want to have in real life!
It looks like the tiger is trying to figure this thing out. Cat intelligence is hard to estimate, but when lions and tigers in captivity have been observed fighting, the tiger always won, perhaps because it was “a clever boxer against a heavy hitter, shrewder and trickier.” (Alfred Martini, quoted in Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
All big cats seem to have small eyes compared to Fluffy. That’s because optical physics dictates the size that works best for a cat’s eyeball. Small cats and tigers therefore have roughly the same sized eyes (Turner and Antón), but in a small cat . . .
. . . in a tiny cat, those eyes seem enormous.
Why do tigers have stripes?
They are gorgeous, but it seems that a huge orange ambush hunter would need something that doesn’t draw attention to its gaudy color.
Technically, stripes are probably extremely elongated rosettes. (Werdelin and others)
Scientists don’t know why tigers have developed them. It’s probably not related to grassland hunting, since tigers have the same stripes in all habitats, even in the snow. (Allen and others)
It’s also true that genes generally have more than one effect. The really important effect might not be one we can see, let alone the most obvious one. (Simpson, 1944)
Well, whatever is going on, it’s working out well for the cat!
Speaking of genetics, molecular studies (Johnson and others, 2006; Nyakatura and Bininda-Emonds) show that, while leopards, jaguars, and lions all share a common ancestor, tigers are most closely related to . . .
These powerful, sociable cats live in the central Asian high country, especially where the terrain is rocky and rugged. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002) Uncia’s favorite prey is the blue sheep of the Himalayas, known locally as the bharal.
Have you ever been so hungry that you routinely ran up and down vertical rocky cliffs for food? Food that was actively avoiding you? Heavy food that you had to carry back home to the family, over vertical terrain, without help . . . with your teeth?
Want to see this? The BBC filmed the rare sight of a snow leopard hunt for a documentary. They have posted online excerpts that include a hunt and a mother taking food back to her cub . . . and then this video breaks away from snow leopards and takes a very moving humanitarian turn.
Sometimes the needs of people come first.
Snow leopards may have genes that help them deal with the thin air at high altitudes. (Cho and others)
No wonder these two cats are taking it easy here, much closer to sea level!
Their huge paws provide good traction on rocks and slippery slopes, as well as a lynx-like “snow-shoe” effect in snow. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
Speaking of the lynx . . .
The lynx lineage
Wild cats can sometimes touch your heart. For me, it’s bobcats.
I could hear them screaming at night in the rural areas of western Massachusetts and upstate New York where I grew up, but I never saw one.
I didn’t film that, but everybody should hear the haunting sound, preferably live and on a crisp, starry early autumn night.
And then go out for a walk the next day, as I did once, and find paw prints as big as your closed fist!
This childhood contact with bobcats is why I’ve selected one particular photograph to start off this gallery.
Unlike all the others, it is motion-blurred, but that’s okay – it captures the mutual surprise of the sighting. The image also shows all the fascinating bobcat details that are so rarely seen in real life.
Rufus is hefty, but it is the smallest (Werdelin, 1981) and may be the oldest living lynx species. (Werdelin and others)
Bobcats like forest cover but they will live in semiforested areas or even open brushlands (Mattern and McLennan), as well as roam through this Florida back yard.
These are New World cats, found from British Columbia southward into central Mexico, and along the eastern coasts from Nova Scotia to Florida.
In the northern part of its range, Rufus may resemble the Canada lynx but it isn’t equipped to handle deep snow or very cold temperatures. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
Best lynx image ever! And the Canada lynx probably hasn’t changed much in appearance since it first evolved. (Werdelin, 1981)
In soft snow, those huge paws can support twice as much weight as a bobcat’s, but this lynx doesn’t weigh twice as much as Rufus – it’s only a little bigger. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
Canada lynxes are found above treeline in the Arctic as well as in the high-latitude forests of North America, north of the bobcat. They have a complex ecological relationship with snowshoe hares, their preferred food. (Cain and others; Mattern and McLennan; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
Twice as big as the Canada lynx, Lynx Squared lives in similar forested or tundra habitats. Its favorite food is roedeer. While its range is severely restricted in Europe, the Eurasian lynx still deserves its name – it is found across much of the northern part of this vast continent, from Scandinavia to Kamchatka.
The Eurasian lynx shares the Himalayas with the leopard and snow leopard, and its screams also echo through western China’s mountains. (Mattern and McLennan; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002; Wang and others)
Iberian lynx: Lynx pardinus. Here’s Mom.
Well, I don’t know that this individual is actually related to the two kittens in that last image, but they all are part of an Iberian lynx conservation program run by Spanish and Portugese governmental agencies (more information here . This site is in Spanish; click the Union Jack icon for the English version)
Such a program is needed.
There are only about five hundred of these animals left in the wild and they are all very inbred. (Johnson and others, 2004)
Such a small population puts the Iberian lynx at a higher risk of extinction than any other cat species today. An unfavorable mutation or simply a natural disaster like a wildfire could wipe them all out. (Boscaini and others; Simpson, 1944)
We’ll get into this more in the last post of the series, about issues and research.
The Iberian lynx is about half the size of the Eurasian lynx and has the most spots of any lynx. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
And then there’s the cat that only looks like a lynx . . .
The caracal lineage
In addition to “Caracal,” some experts use the genus names “Profelis” and “Leptailurus” for a couple of members of this group.
The group’s namesake is sometimes called the “desert lynx.”
And in this pose, the cat does look a lot like the bobcat up above. However, genetic evidence shows that it belongs in its own lineage. (Werdelin and others)
How do you tell caracals and lynxes apart?
For one thing, lynxes don’t do this.
Here’s another big clue:
Caracals are about the size of a small bobcat (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002), but they carry the ear-tuft look to extremes.
Some experts say the ears are used for signalling to other caracals. (Kitchener and others, 2010)
Others suggest that this look might be disruptive camouflage.
Caracals are indeed very hard to see when they sit still, with lowered heads – a good technique for ambushing speedy gazelles, the caracal’s favorite food, in the open habitats this cat prefers. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
Caracals have tawny solid-color coats, while lynxes usually have spots.
The caracal range overlaps with the Eurasian lynx’s around the Caspian Sea, but more often caracals live and hunt in the forests and savannas of Africa, coastal parts of Arabia, and throughout the Middle East to Turkmenistan and parts of India. (Mattern and McLennan; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
African golden cat: Caracal or Profelis aurata. Goldie is one of the more elusive felines. This is the best I could do.
The “Felis” is not an error, given the age of the artwork. Scientific cat herding tends to swing between lumping them all together and over-categorizing them (Herbst). Experts used to name all cats except the cheetah “Felis” until at least the 1980s (MacFadden and Galiano)
I did think the old-time artist had mistaken the bay cat for Goldie. Then I discovered that this does resemble camera-trap images of this cat at Arkive.com.
This very secretive cat lives in the mountains and tropical forests of equatorial western Africa. It’s about twice the size of a housecat and robust, weighing up to 35 pounds (16 kilograms). That’s bulky for an arboreal hunter, but Goldie is just as successful in trees as on the ground. (Mattern and McLennan; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
About 2 feet (60 centimeters) high at the shoulder, servals have the longest legs, relative to their body, of any cat. Believe it or not, most of that extra length is in their feet!
This sleek African cat is found in a few places north of the Sahara, but it mostly lives south of that great desert, in savanna lands and around streams from Senegal to Somalia and then southward into parts of the Republic of South Africa. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
The serval’s coat resembles a cheetah’s, but it’s not a racer. “[T]he serval’s long legs provide its satellite-dish ears with a raised platform from which to scan the vegetation for sounds of prey.” (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002, including quote)
Speaking of cheetahs, were you surprised not to see them listed earlier among the big cats?
Here’s an adorable reason why they’re not in that group:
Yes, they purr . . . loudly. So cheetahs don’t belong with the “roaring” cats.
There’s another reason, too. DNA/molecular studies show that they share a common ancestor with some rather non-cheetah-like animals – pumas and Latin America’s jaguarundi. (Johnson and others, 2006; Nyakatura and Bininda-Emonds; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002; Werdelin and others)
The puma lineage
Cheetahs bring the genus name Acinonyx to this lineage. Puma is the other name, although the mysterious jaguarundi is sometimes given its own genus name: Herpailurus.
This panther isn’t in the pink of health. See its ribs and wasted flesh? It’s probably old and/or sick, and having trouble catching prey. But it must hunt. Nature doesn’t come with “safety nets.”
I’ve noted how bobcats touched my heart. For this photographer, it was the way two of these puma cubs looked back during a chance sighting in Patagonia.
With a range that covers 110 degrees of latitude, from the tip of South America up into the Yukon, pumas are the most widespread land mammal in the western hemisphere. (O’Brien and Johnson, 2005; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
Want a closer view?
One puma subspecies is extremely rare . . .
In eastern North America, pumas were wiped out during the late 19th century. The Florida subspecies was thought to be extinct until 1973, when a few individuals were found.
Now some Florida panthers, including this young brother and sister, live on a refuge in southern Florida.
See their spots? Pumas generally have tawny, solid-color coats that have earned them the name “mountain lion.” (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002) However, young pumas can be spotted. (Allen and others)
At first glance, this doesn’t look anything like a puma or a cheetah . . . until you study the length of the body and legs, the thick tail, and especially that small head.
Jaguarundis are often seen in pairs. They live in lowland forests from southern Texas to northern Argentina, and like the puma, they are active at all hours.
Although jaguarundis are the most common cat in Latin America, very little is known about them – over the last century, skilled professionals have only managed to tag and track three animals in the wild! (Heske, Lab 19; Mattern and McLennan; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
It takes video to see cheetahs in all their glory. However, this image shows the cute cheetah cub mane.
This mother cheetah in the Maasi Mara is risking something far worse than flies and wildlife photographers.
Sadly, almost all cubs die during their first few months of life. Lions are usually the culprits when deaths can be blamed on a predator, and that’s over 70% of the time in Serengeti National Park. (Rostro-Garcia and others; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
If there is an attack, those cubs will scatter into the grass, where the mane makes each one practically invisible. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
Now let’s watch some cheetah videos!
I included this first video in an earlier post, but it’s well worth another look:
And here’s an ecotourist’s dream encounter:
Today we only think of cheetahs as wild animals – and that’s correct, as far as it goes. The tourists in that vehicle were certainly in danger of being mauled.
But, unlike many cats in the natural world, these beautiful predators can relax a little around humans, and vice versa. In fact, our shared history together goes back some four thousand years! (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
That last video inspires another thought. Perhaps cat domestication has always started out this way – not initiated by us but on some impulsive feline whim.
We’ll look at that a little more closely in the next post, which is about Silvester the Wildcat and how one wildcat became domesticated and turned into Fluffy.
All of the next group of cats live in the New World, usually in Latin America.
Some of their ancestors colonized South America a few million years ago, just before the Ice Ages began, when a land bridge connected that continent with North America for the first time. (Prothero, 2006; Trigo and others)
The ocelot lineage
An ocelot’s coat is “the most wonderful tangle of stripes, bars, chains, spots, dots and smudges . . . which look as though they were put on as the animal ran by.” (Ernest T. Seton , quoted in Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
Their gorgeous fur makes ocelots one of the most heavily exploited cats today. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002) This is another issue we will tackle in the last post of this series.
There are other cats as lovely as the ocelot in this lineage, as well as an assortment of little spotted cats, one of the world’s smallest felines, and . . . a fat housecat?
Putting scientific names on some of these Latin American cats can be challenging. (Barstow and Leslie, Jr.)
Many of them resemble each other. They also usually hide out in dense brush, hunting only at night. This makes them very difficult to study.
Some are still evolving, too. In technical terms, members of this lineage are mixing genes and developing hybrids and new species. (O’Brien and Koepfli; Trigo and others)
Let’s just sit back and admire them – and wonder how that one “fatty” got out onto the pampas.
These medium-sized cats are found from southern Texas and the Mexican coastal lowlands down through Central America and South America, all the way to northern Argentina. They like dense cover and are good swimmers. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
Here’s an interesting factoid: For some reason, ocelots have a different number of genes than all other cats. (O’Brien and Johnson, 2007)
Ocelots often use trees for resting, but radio-tracking has shown that they are ground-based hunters. Their favorite prey is rodents, but a hungry ocelot will go after just about any animal weighing 2 pounds (1 kilogram) or less. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
Margays are true arboreal specialists. The big paws on these two individuals, who are in a Costa Rican shelter, hint at their incredible agility in a tree.
Although rarer than ocelots, margays have a similar range. The only reported sighting in North America dates back to the 1800s. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
Margays and ocelots resemble each other, but you can always tell them apart by size – the largest margay is smaller than the smallest ocelot.
And if you’re in Latin America and see a cat casually climbing down a vertical trunk headfirst, it’s a margay. The only other cat with 180-degree ankles like that is the marbled cat, which lives on another continent. (Kitchener and others, 2010; Mattern and McLennan; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
Oncillas are one of the smallest cats in the New World. They can be seen in forests, as well as more open areas, and sometimes are mistaken for margays.
The oncilla is much less ruggedly built than a margay, but no one knows if they are arboreal specialists or ground hunters.
There are at least two major oncilla populations known, one in Central America and the other in South America.
New species have been identified besides Tigrinus. However, sorting oncillas out is challenging work for field biologists because these little felines aren’t just elusive – they also are hybridizing with some of the other members of this lineage. (de Oliveira; ISEC; Kitchener and others; Mattern and McLennan; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002; Trigo and others)
A resident of southeastern South America, this housecat-sized spotted cat was named after Geoffroy St. Hilaire, a French naturalist.
It lives in a variety of habitats with dense cover – everywhere from subtropical grasslands to the dry brush country of the Andean foothills. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002) It can even swim! (Mattern and McLennan)
Geoffroy’s cat is one of those that have been hybridizing with the oncilla. (Trigo and others)
Pampas cat: Leopardus colocolo. No, it isn’t a housecat. Felis catus doesn’t normally live out on the Brazilian pampas (the pampas cat has gone extinct on Argentina’s version of these vast grasslands).
Despite its name, this cat lives in more types of habitat than any other South American cat, yet it is seldom seen.
The pampas cat may be thriving in the wild away from humans or it may be at risk of extinction. No one knows for sure.
There is also an ongoing scientific debate over whether this is a single species with subspecies or a group of separate species.
I have followed the single-species approach of Lucherini and others, but there could be at least three separate cat species included under the “pampas cat” moniker.
From that viewpoint, Fatty here would be Leopardus pajeros. (Barstow and Leslie, Jr.; Lucherini and others; Mattern and McLennan; Nyakatura and Bininda-Emonds; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
That is an adult cat and those are not giant ferns.
At 3 to 6 pounds (1.5 to 2.8 kilograms), the kodkod is one the smallest cats in the world. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
Here’s another kodkod. Color variations like these are more common than the dramatic white coloration in lions and tigers. (Eizirik and others; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
Whether its coat is gray or buff colored, this cute little spotted cat is only found today in one small section of the Andean forests in southern Chile and Argentina. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
But the next cat is even more rare . . .
This housecat-sized feline has been seen only a few times. It lives above tree line in the high country of Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina, but experts say, “Virtually the only proof that the Andean mountain cat is not extinct comes from the periodic appearance of fresh skins in the fur markets of Buenos Aires.”
This photographer was knowledgeable, very patient, and lucky.
While the mountain cat certainly doesn’t look like an ocelot, DNA from those skins shows that it belongs in this lineage.
Its fur has been compared to that of the snow leopard, and like that big cat, the Andean mountain cat is usually seen on rocky slopes when it is seen at all. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002, including quote)
These are the most widely accepted members in the ocelot lineage, but some experts say that it could contain up to 16 species! (Barstow and Leslie, Jr.)
We’re doing well! Six feline lineages down and two more to go – the small Asian spotted cats and then the three little Felis cats that belong in the domestic cat lineage but aren’t wildcats or Fluffy.
However, this is a good time to take a break from spots and check out a unique individual species called Manul.
It is a beautiful, hairy little problem for scientists whose job it is to classify cats. Which of those two lineages – Asian spotted cats or Felis – does this little furball belong to?
Central Asia contains a cat unlike any other.
Some refer to it as the Pallas cat, after its discoverer Peter Simon Pallas. More often, it’s simply called by its Mongolian name, “Manul.” (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
Some experts see it as Felis manul. (Nyakatura and Bininda-Emonds) This is understandable. In the image above, Manul does look a lot like Fluffy.
But overall, little Manul looks more like a visiting space alien.
It’s hard to believe that underneath all that fur is only a short-legged, roughly 4-pound (2-kilogram) cat. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
This strange appearance raises a practical question: how does Manul catch its regular diet of pikas, gerbils, voles, rodents and partridges? (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
Winters are certainly very cold where this cat lives, and no doubt the heavy coat is wonderful insulation.
But Manul has quite short legs and gets stuck in just 4 inches (10 centimeters) of the white stuff. It can only live in places that get very little snowfall. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
In Central Asia, that means wide open steppe lands with hardly any cover. Yet this is obviously not a pursuit hunter.
When we see how Manul hunts, the space-alien look makes perfect sense. It’s the natural equivalent of an invisibility cloak.
Manul is famous for hiding in plain sight. That is, it will crouch down close to the ground and stay perfectly still. Even people who know where the cat is have a very hard time seeing it. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
The secret? That shaggy fur is portable cover. It blends into the steppe background and breaks up the hard outlines of this predator’s body.
In addition, those dark lines and spots on Manul’s facial fur are excellent disruptive camouflage, while the very flat forehead and low-set ears are hardly noticeable when their owner cautiously peeks out from under a bush or around a small rock as it stalks. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
Some experts give this cat its own genus: Otocolobus manul. (Johnson and others, 2006; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
Then, for very good technical reasons that I cannot begin to understand, let alone describe here, they put it into the small spotted Asian cat lineage (Johnson and others, 2006), not Felis.
This is where the arguments start.
One proposed solution to this classification dilemma is surprising: combine the Felis and Asian spotted cat lineages together with Manul into a single group! (Nyakatura and Bininda-Emonds; Werdelin and others)
It sounds like a good compromise . . . until you meet a couple of the Asian spotted cats.
The leopard cat lineage
I wish this lineage was called “small Asian spotted cats.” The word “leopard” is overused.
As we have seen, the leopard is actually in Panthera, along with snow leopards. And Leopardus is the ocelot genus.
Now we must add in a leopard cat group with the jaw-breaking genus name of Prionailurus (and also Otocolobus, if you’re a Manul partisan).
Well, the leopard cat does look sort of like a small, slender version of its bigger relative . . .
This is the most common small cat in Asia.
Leopard cats prowl through treetops as easily as they hunt on the ground. They live in a variety of habitats from tropical lowlands to the dry Himalayan foothill forests.
They come in such a wide variety of colors and sizes that experts have sometimes thought there were many different subspecies. However, DNA analysis shows that it’s all the same species (Mattern and McLennan; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002), although there is still some disagreement over the ‘Iriomote cat.’ (Nyakatura and Bininda-Emonds; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
This is the only other relatively normal-looking cat in this lineage, even if it is sometimes compared to a hummingbird. That nickname, of course, isn’t based on appearance.
About half the size of a domestic cat, Rusty is very agile and does seem to flit around in a tree. It’s found in grasslands and forests of Sri Lanka, parts of the Indian subcontinent, and in a small part of Central Asia. (Mattern and McLennan; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
Now, prepare yourself for something different . . .
This cat – yes, it is a cat – is sitting, but its legs are so short that it appears to be hugging the ground.
Check out some of the images of the flat-headed cat at Arkive.com. If you happened to see one of these cats along the riverbanks of southern Thailand, Malaysia, Sumatra, or Borneo, you might mistake it for a small, short-bodied otter.
Flat-headed cats can swim. In fact, their head and body modifications have made them at least as good at catching fish (Kitchener and others, 2010; Mattern and McLennan; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002) as the last member of this group . . .
The fishing cat: Prionailurus viverrinus. The keeper must be cautious because these gray or brown spotted cats are twice as big as Fluffy and powerful enough to break a dog’s jaw with one blow of their forepaw. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
Fishing cats can also swim underwater to catch a duck. Some experts say they have partly webbed toes on their front feet, but others disagree. (Kitchener and others, 2010; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
Fishing cats are rare but they may be found along shorebanks in the mangrove swamps of Sumatra, Java, and southern mainland Asia. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
The presence of unusual felines like the flat-headed cat and fishing cat makes the controversy over combining their group with Fluffy’s a little easier to understand.
But if evolution only means “natural selection,” then maybe any cat would have adapted to its environment the way those two did. Why not combine the two lines and throw in Manul for good measure?
The scientific debate continues.
The Felis (domestic cat) lineage
If you’re still reeling from the flat-headed and fishing cats, relax. The most unusual-looking cat in the Felis lineage is also one of the loveliest little animals you will ever see.
This is the only cat to specialize in sandy deserts. It’s found in southwestern Asia, Arabia, and northern Africa and was named after a 19th-century French expedition leader, not a cocktail.
This photographer probably was able to get so close because “the sand cat is docile and unafraid almost to the point of absurdity.”
Little Margarita lives on gerbils, hamsters, and other small desert dwellers. It is also the only member of the cat family to live in burrows – necessary behavior in a place where temperatures routinely get up to well over 100 degrees (40 degrees Celsius) in the summer and down to 13 below (-25 degrees Celsius) in winter. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002, including quote)
This resident of southern Africa is even smaller than the sand cat, but it definitely is not docile. Scientists have watched these little maniacs repeatedly fend off jackals and stalk an ostrich, scaring it off its nest.
The cat is only as big as the ostrich’s foot. (Herbst)
Large birds and young lambs are often on the black-footed cat’s menu, even though it is one of the world’s smallest cats, along with Latin America’s kodkod and Asia’s rusty-spotted “hummingbird” cat. (Herbst; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
Oddly enough, the black-footed cat doesn’t have dark stockings. Only its footpads and the foot sole fur are black.
Its local name “anthill tiger” seems appropriate for such a little fighter; the “anthills” are actually hollowed-out termite mounds that these cats sometimes sleep in. (Herbst; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
Jungle cat: Felis chaus. The two small cats above prefer very different habitats. That’s Margarita the Sand Cat on the left. Chaus, on the right, is usually found near water.
Jungle cats are slightly bigger than a housecat and rawboned in appearance. Kittens can be striped or spotted, but the adults usually have a solid brown or grayish coat with remnant patterns on the legs and tail. In southeastern Pakistan, the jungle cats are often black. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)
Sssh, don’t wake Chaus . . .
Oops, too late. There it goes.
Note the nearby reeds. Jungle cats love wetlands and they also live in dense brush throughout the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, and southern Asia. They’re common enough in the wild to be called the “small-cat equivalent of the jackal,” but very little is actually known about them. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002, including quote)
That’s quite a parade of feline beauty and quirkiness!
But it’s merely a quick look at something unique in the history of life on Earth. This isn’t just a cat lover talking – it’s scientific fact.
Common sense tells us that the saber-cats were special because there’s nothing like them around today. Modern cats are just a beautiful, often endangered, and occasionally scary fact of ordinary ife on Earth today.
Common sense has the story exactly backwards.
Over geologic time, it’s the sabertooths who keep showing up over and over again.
Cone-tooths are extremely rare in the fossil record, and their span of time is much shorter than the sabertooth part of the stony archives. (Werdelin, 1989)
Wait . . . “cone-tooths?”
Paleontologists call modern cats and their extinct relatives “conical-toothed cats” to distinguish them from the sabertooths.
To see why, just check out the shape of Fluffy’s needle-like canine teeth or the huge fangs of a big cat.
That cone-like fang shape – slightly oval and broad at the base, tapering to a point – can handle the stressful loads that happen whenever the cat – big or small – clamps down on struggling prey in a killing bite. (Kitchener and others)
There have been three other short-faced mammal groups with saberteeth besides cats. (Van Valkenburgh, 2007) Practically none of them had conical teeth.
Let’s use the cat-like barbourofelids and nimravids from earlier posts as examples:
- Only two out of fifteen known species of barbourofelid might possibly have been cone-tooths, and even that hasn’t been confirmed yet. (Werdelin and others)
- Out of the six known major groups of nimravids (Bryant), just one species in one group – Dinaelurus crassus – had conical teeth. All the rest were sabertooths. (Martin, 1989)
So today we are living with almost forty different kinds of something that has almost never existed before on this planet.
That raises a lot of questions, but we have covered enough information for one post.
Let’s just watch the sun go down now with a little wildcat family and wait until next time to check out, with a Fluffy-shaped lens, how cats evolved on their own and with human intervention.
Evolution of cat-cher. H. S. Crocker, 1889. Library of Congress.
Purring panther video. “Mountain Lions of Big Cat Rescue”
Persian leopard. Tamar Assaf. . Public domain.
Jaguar, black. SandJLikins at Morguefile.com
Amur tiger and cub. Dave Pape. Public domain.
Bobcat screaming good video. Brandon Robinson
Caracal licking. Rinzler at Pixabay. Public domain.
“Felis” aurata drawing: Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 1873. Public domain.–
Purring cheetah video: Mihaifrancu. YouTube.
Cougar: Skeeze at Pixabay. Public domain.
Cheetah running video: Smithsonian Channel, YouTube.
Sand cat/jungle cat
Wildcat family video: Wild India.
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