Evolution and systematics

Felidae are part of the ailurid (cat-like) branch of the order Carnivora, which also includes the hyena, mongoose, and civet families. The earliest cat-like animals can be dated back to the lower Eocene, some 40 million years ago. Today's cat species can be traced to an ancestor named Pseudailurus, from which wild cats and saber-toothed tigers evolved in the Oligocene, some 25-30 million years ago. Saber-tooths preyed on primitive, large, slow mammals and died out 10,000-20,000 years ago, but modern cats adapted to hunt large, fast ungulates, and prospered and evolved into the 36 cat species known today.

Cat taxonomy has been subject to considerable confusion and revision. Linnaeus originally classified all cats into a single genus, Felis. Later taxonomists subdivided this into as many as 23 genera, then, more recently there was a tendency to "lump" some genera together again. Until recently many authorities recognized only four genera: Felis for all small cats, Panthera for the "big cats" (defined by their ability to roar), Neofelis for the clouded leopard, intermediate between big and small cats, and Acinonyx for the cheetah.

In 1996, the Felid Taxonomic Advisory Group (TAG) of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) published a revised taxonomy which divided Panthera into 4 genera, and Felis into 13. There are now four genera (seven species) in the Pantherinae subfamily, one genus (one species: the cheetah) in the Acinonychinae subfamily, and 13 genera (28 species)

in the Felinae subfamily. The Iriomote cat (Prionailurus bengalensis iriomotensis), once considered a separate species, is now classed as a subspecies of the leopard cat.

The Felid TAG classification is used in this account, with older genus names indicated in parentheses. Molecular research is likely to lead to further revisions to felid taxonomy.

A male African lion (Panthera leo) rests in the shade. (Photo by David M. Maylen III. Reproduced by permission.)
A fishing cat (Felis viverrina) from Southeast Asia. (Photo by Animals Animals ©John Chellman. Reproduced by permission.)
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