All cats, large & small are thought to have evolved from Proailurus (meaning “before the cat”), a prehistoric cat that lived in Eurasia in the Late Oligocene and Miocene periods, approximately 25 million years ago. It is thought these cats were a little larger than today’s domestic cats, weighed roughly 20 lbs and were largely arboreal.
Around 10-20 million years ago the Styriofelis family evolved. They were a species of small wild cat about the size of a Lynx. It is from these cats that all the cat lineages we see today have evolved. The big cats diverged from small cats and many morphological changes started to take place.
One of the differences between the large cats and the smaller wild cats can be heard in their vocalizations. Lions, Tigers, Leopards and Jaguars all have a flexible neck bone called the hyoid, enabling them to stretch the larynx (voice box) to roar. A small cat’s hyoid is hardened, preventing them from roaring but still allowing them to purr.
Around 11 million years ago the first of the 8 lineages we know today arose and is known as the Panthera lineage. This contained 5 of the big cats and the first of the small cats – the clouded Leopard and the Sunda Clouded leopard. These two cats, like the other small wild cats, cannot roar. The final cat within this linage is the snow leopard. The snow leopard has a flexible hyoid, but it can neither truly purr nor truly roar – instead it makes a noise called chuffing.