Last week we looked at tails and how a cats habitat can affect their morphology. In the same way, a cats hunting habits can have a strong impact on the physiology of a cats ears. As you can see from the images below, cats have evolved to have very different looking ears, from the short rounded ears of the clouded leopard to the tall, triangular ears of a Caracal.
Clouded leopards are arboreal and spend most of the lives in the jungle. Because of this their ears aren’t the primary tool for hunting. Their skulls are quite long and low allowing room for exceptionally long canine teeth and their ears are small, rounded and low down the side of their skulls to aid with its camouflage
Caracals hunt in deserts and grasslands. Hunting over large open spaces means it’s essential to hear even the smallest of sounds to increase the chances of a successful kill. Caracals use 20 muscles in each ear allowing movement in a variety of directions. There are many theories regarding the large tufts on the tips of the ears ranging from a camouflage aid in tall grass to helping keep flies out of the cats face however the most common theory is that it acts as a way to aid in communication with fellow caracals. The name Caracal comes from the Turkish words for ‘black ear’-kara kulak.
The Serval, much like the Caracal, has excellent smell, sight and hearing which helps them to detect prey both in the long grass and even underground. They too can also rotate their ears independently allowing them to pin point prey nearby. Servals have the largest ears (and longest legs) relative to its body size of all cats in the cat family.
The Pallas’s cat lives in cold arid habitats of elevations up to nearly 20,000 feet. Due to its compact body, Pallas’s cats aren’t fast runners, nor are they good climbers or swimmers. Instead it uses stealth, crouching low to the ground or behind a rock looking to ambush its prey. Pallas’s cats ears are set very low down its head and thus far apart. Having low-positioned ears helps the cat conceal itself as they don’t show when hiding behind a rock. The Pallas’s cat’s scientific name, Otocolobus, comes from the Greek language and can (in our opinion unfairly) be translated to ‘ugly-eared.’
All fours species of Lynx (Eurasian, Canada, Iberian & bobcat) have large tufts on their ears. Given these cats all have vastly different habitats in which they hunt, its fair to say that the tufts, as previously discussed are more likely used for communication than hunting.