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.
Continuing our look at Cat lineages we come to the fifth lineage divergence and the ancestor of the Lynx species. The split is believed to have occurred around 7.2 million years ago with the Lynx lineage containing four separate species in one genus. Distributions of the Lynx species are split between North America for bobcats and the Canadian Lynx and Eurasia for the Iberian and Eurasian Lynx. All four species have the distinctive ear tufts and bobbed tails. The name Lynx comes from the Greek word “to shine,” in reference to the reflective ability of the cat’s eyes. In mythology Lynx are also supposed to have supernatural eyesight, capable of seeing through solid objects.
It’s believed of the four Lynx cats the Bobcat was the first to diverge from the other three an estimated 3 million years ago. Bobcats are around twice the size of a domestic cat if not bigger and interestingly their size varies depending on distribution with body sizes increasing with elevation and the largest individuals found in the Northern most regions. Bobcats unfortunately are the most heavily traded of the felids with demand for its fur at record highs since the 1960’s.
The Canadian Lynx is the Bobcats closest relative with a distinct divergence estimated only around 1.5 million years ago. Canadian Lynx are on average taller and slightly larger than bobcats with large hind legs giving them their distinct appearance. Canadian Lynx have the largest of all paws in relation to body size allowing them to distribute their weight like a snowshoe helping it manoeuvre during a chase with their favourite food, the Snowshoe hare.
The Eurasian Lynx is the largest Lynx species and has by far the largest distribution of all the small wild cats ranging right across Asia and Europe. Because of this broad distribution range there are as many as nine subspecies of Eurasian lynx. As you would imagine for a widely dispersed cat they have a broad habitat tolerance from forests to woodlands to Mountains to semi desert areas, they are able to adapt to most conditions.
The Iberian Lynx is the most endangered cat in the world with an estimated 400 individuals left in the wild. They were classed as Critically Endangered in 2002, and upgraded to Endangered in 2015 when numbers started to increase. They are distributed scarcely across Southern Spain and Portugal. The decline of Iberian Lynx numbers was mainly due to an out-break of myxomatosis in rabbits across Europe, whilst other animals managed to source other foods, rabbits made up 75-93% of their diet and had a major impact. Whilst numbers are increasing and conservation efforts seemingly working the threat to the Iberian Lynx still remains.
Next time we will be looking at the Puma Lineage.
Continuing our look at Small wild cat lineages we come to the fourth divergence out of eight. The Leopardus lineage contains the largest number (eight) of small wild cats and is the ancestor of the ocelot. The divergence is believed to have happened around 8 million years ago and the cats found in this genus are mainly found in South America with some also found in North America and interestingly the only cat genus that has 36 chromosomes rather than 38!
The first cat, and the ancestor of this lineage is the Ocelot. The third largest cat in South America is closely related to the Margay but is slightly larger with a shorter tail. A very agile climber these cats have notably large front paws leading to the local name Manigordo (meaning Fat Hand). Although International trade became illegal in 1989 hunting is still widespread to sell furs into illegal trade. The Ocelot got its name from the Mexican Aztec word tlalocelot meaning Field Tiger.
As stated previously Ocelots and Margays are closely related with the divergence coming as recently as around 1.5 million years ago. Whilst they are often mistaken for one another (along with both Oncilla cats) they have some distinct differences. The Margay has much larger eyes, the reason for this is the Margay is more of a nocturnal hunter than the Ocelot, perhaps a way they evolved so that their hunting patterns didn’t overlap.
Colocolo cats or Pampas cats are a similar size to domestics cats and closely related to the Andean Cat. Another poorly studied cat that occurs almost the entire length of the Andes, from Colombia through to Argentina. Whilst this cat is typically Grey in coloration with strong ginger markings the Colocolo cat coat varies greatly depending on its regional habitat.
Until 2013 the Oncilla was believed to be a single species. Recent genetic studies have revealed that Oncilla’s from Northern South America & North Eastern Brazil are distinct from those in Southern Brazil and the Amazon Basin. Their respective ranges overlap and meet in Central Brazil but apparently they do not interbreed. Bar using genetics they are almost impossible to tell apart but Northern Oncillas have a slight trend to be lighter in colour with smaller rosette markings.
The Guiña or Kodkod was formally grouped in the same genus as the Colocolo cat however recent studies places it firmly in a sub-species of the Leopardus genus along with the two Oncilla cats to which its closely related. The smallest cat in the Americas, its short and stocky with a thick bushy tail. Güiña also have the smallest distribution of any Latin America cat and are restricted to Southern Chile and South Western Argentina.
Geoffroy’s Cats are closely related to the güiña and the two have a shared ancestor around just one million years ago. Geoffroy’s cats can be found from Central Bolivia to Southern parts of Chile and Argentina. These cats prefer open grassland and forested areas than dense tropical rain forest. Unusually for a felid this cat has a habit of depositing its faeces in certain trees creating aboreal middens as part of its scent marking. Its close relatives Colocolo cats and Ocelots also have this strange behavior.
Next time we will be looking at the Lynx Lineage!
Taking a break from our Small wild cat lineages we look at paws. Along with tails and ears (see previous posts), it is another physical trait whereby we can see some morphological differences in small wild cats. In this post, we will look at a handful of cats and show how the differences in their paws are suited to their habitats and hunting styles. From big to small to fluffy to webbed, cats have some of the most interesting feet in the animal kingdom.
With the biggest (and in our opinion the best) paws we first look at the Canadian lynx. In comparative terms the Canadian Lynx and the Bobcat are similar in size, , their paws however differ vastly. Canadian Lynx paws are much larger and much furrier and have the ability to spread its toes out to increase the surface area. These traits allow the lynx to use their paws much like snowshoes, distributing its weight and helping it manoeuvre quickly during a chase in snowy conditions. The thick fur of the paws of a Canadian Lynx also help with the cold.
Another Cat with furry paws is the Sand Cat – distributed across the deserts of Africa, rather than needing protection from the cold these small cats furry paws actually protect them from the soaring temperatures of desert sands. It also means they leave no tracks behind, maybe helping them avoid predators. Interestingly Sand cats also have the ability to spread their toes as a way of distributing their weight presumably to assist with walking on sand in the same way it would on snow.
One of the more noted characteristics often associated with the fishing cat is webbed feet. However, today its known that the webbing on this cat isn’t much more developed than the bobcat with even domestic acts having a slightly webbed paw. More interesting is the fact they have semi-retractable claws. Whilst fishing cats can swim and even dive after fish they have also been seen to gently tap the surface of the water mimicking the ripples of an insect. Then, once the fish has come into striking range, it will use its claw to hook the fish out of the water. Fishing cats, along with Cheetahs, are the only cats to have this feature.
Finally, we look at The Margay, Marbled cat and both clouded leopard species. All three cats are arboreal and therefore amazingly agile climbers. All three of these cats have wide forepaws that aid with balance they all have the unique ability to rotate their hind paws 180 degrees allowing them to climb down tree’s headfirst. No other cats can do this and its the reason your domestic cat can sometimes need help to get down from that tree they foolishly decided to climb.
Next time we continue our look at cat lineages…
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:
Continuing our look at Small wild cat lineages we have come to the Pardofelis lineage. This was the second to diverge after the Panthera lineage and is understood to contain 3 of our current small wild cats. It’s believed this divergence occurred around 9.4 million years ago. The three cats in this lineage are the Bornean Bay cat, the Asiatic Golden cat and the Marbled Cat. There is evidence to suggest the marbled cat should be reclassified as two separate species either side of the Kra Isthmus, a narrow part of the Malay Peninsula in Asia. Although the three cats don’t look particularly similar to one another one thing of note is they all have a relatively small rounded head. It is unknown why this might be.
The Asiatic Golden Cat is closely related to the Bay cat and at one point they were considered the same species, however genetic analysis has confirmed they’re separate species with a common ancestor dating back approximately 4.9 – 5.3 million years ago. It is also not related to the African Golden Cat as it was once classified. These cats live throughout most of Asia and also on Sumatra but not Borneo. They are generally considered cathemeral although typically more active at dusk than at night. Asiatic Golden cats are primarily found in forested areas and therefore are under-threat from deforestation and illegal hunting. They are classified as Near Threatened.
The Bornean Bay cat is, as you may have guessed, endemic to the island of Borneo and is one of the rarest cats in the world. Because of the lack research carried out on this cat we know very little about their hunting techniques, their ecology or even whether they’re social animals or solitary. Bay cats are classified as Endangered and alongside the Asiatic Golden cat they are the only two members of the genus Catopuma.
The Marbled cat is probably the least similar of the three cats with an appearance more typical of a clouded leopard (especially the tail). This can most likely be tracked to its life in the trees (see previous post on tails). Like most Asian cats, information on social and reproductive behaviour is sparse with most focus on the larger cats. Due the occasional sightings of pairs of Marbled cats it has been thought they may form long term mating partnerships however as with most cats species the camera trap footage reveals a more likely solitary life in the forests. Like the Asiatic cat, the Marbled cats depends on thick, dense forest vegetation so are threatened greatly by logging and plantations for Palm Oil. Marbled Cats are classified as Vulnerable.
Next time we will be looking at the Caracal Lineage…
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.
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.
A cats fur colour can vary greatly, even among those born in the same litter. Small wild cats born of the same litter can typically be spotted/stripped or plain but also all black. This black colouring of the fur is due to an increased amount of melanin, a black pigment in the fur. Cats with this trait are typically referred to as melanistic and as far as is known this black fur mutation can happen in all cat species. The pictures below show some examples; can you guess what cats they are?
The shape of a cats tail varies greatly between species and the tails we see today are the product of a long and complex evolutionary history. As with many species in the animal kingdom a small wild cats morphology, or physical traits, have been affected by millions of years of natural selection and the differences today can be associated to the different conditions these cats live in to hunt and find a mate.
Pallas cats are native to the steppe regions of Central Asia, where they inhabit elevations of up to 5,000m. Their tails are long, fluffy and extremely lightweight perfect for covering nose and paws from cold winds and freezing conditions. This can also be said of the Andean Mountain cat who lives in a similar environment high in the Andes.
Like most arboreal cats Margays and Clouded leopards have long and muscular tails that assist with balance when moving around in trees. As they leap about in the canopy the tail is used as a counterweight helping them move effortlessly from branch to branch.
On the other end of the spectrum Bobcats have very small tails. They do however have big paws this helps them hunt for prey in deep snow, having no need for a tail we can see over time it’s gotten smaller and smaller. Lynx’s also share this trait.
Asiatic golden cats and African golden cats also have long muscular tails. Due to a lack of research we are unsure why but being predominantly land hunters maybe the tail is used as a rudder for changing direction quickly much like a cheetah, aiding their stalk and rush hunting method.