The Puma lineage which diverged around 6.7 million years ago. In this lineage we see two of what we define as large cats and one small cat. Interestingly the two large cats, cheetahs and pumas are more closely related and similar to their smaller relations than they are to the large cat family. You could say these are small cats that have just developed larger bodies to help them survive and breed in their environment. The one defined small cat is the Jaguarundi a strange looking cat with a small head that maybe looks like its belongs in the Mustelids (Otters, weasels) family rather than the felines.
There are five Cheetahs subspecies, four African and one Asian. The Asian cheetah and one of the African subspecies (Hecki, West African) are critically endangered. Well known for its fast speeds and rudder like tail, cheetahs have now disappeared from approximately 80% of their historical range. Cheetah cubs are born with a mane that runs down their backs called a mantle (see picture) that slowly disappears as they grow older. Some biologists believe that it resembles the fur pattern of the bad tempered and feared Honey Badger helping it to protect the cub from other predators.
Pumas are the largest cats outside of the Panthera lineage and have one of the largest geographical ranges of any land mammal in the western hemisphere. They also hold the world record for the animal with the greatest number of names, with over 40 in English alone. The English name Puma originates from the Quechua word for Powerful. As well as being powerful pumas are good climbers and are capable of swimming maybe proving insight as to why they are so widely dispersed.
Perhaps the strangest looking cat in all the cat family is the Jaguarundi. Looking more like an otter and aptly named otter-cat by many, these sleek cats live in South and Central America and in Mexico. Its closest relative however is the puma sharing a common ancestor dating back 4.2 million years ago. Jaguarundis are very distinctive to look at with small narrow elongated heads with widely spaced rounded ears. They also come in a variety of different colours ranging from dark blackish grey to a bright brick red with the red-brown morph tending to be more common in dry, open habitats.
Next week we will be looking at the Prionailurus Lineage.