Continuing our look at small wild cat lineages today we look at the third lineage to diverge; The Caracal lineage. The divergence is believed to have happened around 8.5 million years ago and includes a further three of our current small wild cats. The Serval, the African Golden cat and unsurprisingly the Caracal. The “lynx” of Greeks and Roman times was most probably the Caracal and the name “lynx” is sometimes still applied to the cats in this lineage however but the present-day lynx is a separate species despite the familiar ear tufts that link the lynx and the Caracal.
The Serval has its own genus Leptailurus based upon its morphology. It’s a distinctive cat with long legs, big ears and a small head. In fact it has the largest ears and legs of any of the cats species relative to its body size. Servals inhabit the Savannahs of Africa typically in close association with rivers and other sources of water, rarely do they inhabit the Congo basin, the Sahara or dense rainforest. Their morphology is very adapt to its hunting technique, moving quietly in grass using its huge, extremely sensitive ears to listen to for prey. It then uses its large hind legs to perform a high arching pounce on the unfortunate prey. Servals have some of the best hunting success rates , catching their prey on an astonishing 50% of their hunts. They also have been seen jumping as high as 3 meters in the air to catch birds.
The Caracal spilt from the Serval species around 5.6 million years ago along with its closest relative the African golden cat only to diverge again to form its own separate species around 1-2 million years later. Caracals, like Servals, typically occur in most of Africa except for true Rainforest and desert regions. Like most cats it’s a formidable hunter using its long legs and explosive speed (Caracals are considered one of the fastest of the cat species) to take down even the largest of prey (Ostrich has been recorded in Caracal scat). Whilst the function of the long tufts on their ears are unclear its generally considered to be a used for communication.
The African Golden Cat was previously grouped with the Asiatic golden cat but molecular analysis show they are not closely related. There are two subspecies of African Golden cat representing populations West of the Cross river in Nigeria and east of the Congo river. Kittens are often born with small tufts on their ears, a sign of their link to Caracals, however this disappears as the cats reach adulthood. African Golden cats have an appearance that closely resembles a leopard and local names translate as ‘The Leopards Brother’. Golden cats are rare and the depletion of forest areas are having an effect on their population numbers. They’re currently listed as Vulnerable with numbers decreasing.
Next time we have a look at the Ocelot Lineage: