Foothill Felines Bengals/Savannahs

Gorgeous jaguar laying outside

Handsome Jaguar, enjoying a peaceful afternoon

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There are twenty-six species of small wild cats belonging to the same group or genus as the domestic cat, being all names Felis, and these, together with three species of Lynx, six species of large cats (Panthera), and the cheetah (Acinonyx), make up the family of the Felidae. With the exception of the cheetah, the felids are a contiguous group of meat-eaters which are all recognizable as belonging to the same family of mammal. They all have long legs, short faces, and sleek, athletic bodies with beautiful coats. In addition, they can all retract their claws, have a keenly developed sense of smell, and they all purr. With the exception of the lion, all the felids are solitary hunters, kill rather small prey, and usually hunt at night. Interestingly, the lion is the most social of the felids, and lives and hunts in a family group which we call a "pride".

How have cats survived so long?? The answer lies in the fact that there is virtually only one mainstay of the cat's diet…and that is meat. Fresh meat killed by their mother or themselves is the only item on the feline diet, and that means survival for them is no easy matter. Their food is not found on trees, waiting to be eaten. Nature has supplied the cat with the intelligence, courage, and speed to become and to stay the fabulous hunter that it needs to be to survive. Hunting preoccupies a cat almost from birth. When one observes young kittens playing, they are play-acting hunting. The process of hunting means more than the food victory of the hunt, because a cat can hunt without eating, but cannot eat without hunting.

It is now thought that because the diet of the cat has remained the same for eons of time, this may explain why the thirty two species of the family of cats resemble each other so closely, with the exception of their size and the traits necessary for appropriate camouflage. Cats have had no reason to change! Excellent hunters since the lynx-like "Ur-cat" of the Miocene from whom the modern cats descend, the cats have had no need to adjust their bodies or their diets in response to major changes in the world's climate. This is because the diets of the cats didn't change. To a cat, a fish who eats algae, a bird who eats berries, and a giraffe who eats acacias are all meat for the hunting. So, while the glaciers came and went, while the vegetarians struggled to try to digest new plants and adapt themselves to overwhelming global changes, the cats simply kept on hunting, waiting to pounce on whatever managed to survive into the next epoch. It is the same limber body of the cat that hunted successfully in the Pliocene that hunts successfully today.

Because eating meat is so vital to the cat's survival, being a carnavore has contributed greatly to the evolution of the cat's physical appearance and personality. The cat since ancient times has had dagger-like eyeteeth for fastening firmly onto prey, and strong, triangular cheek teeth which are capable of severing the victim's spine and shearing the flesh into bite-sized chunks that the cat can swallow. Meat-eating has also caused the cat to have a short intestinal tract, since meat is easy to digest and doesn't require a long, heavy gut (which would only weigh the cat down, slowing his ability to pounce and preventing him from hunting as effectively). Meat-eating also explains the short digestive period, the rapid passage of food through the cat, and the nutritional residue in a cat's feces. This is a main reason why cats are so concerned with burying their feces, and they never mark with feces at home, only with sprays of urine.

Even more than the physical characteristics which will always continue to develop over time due to its meat-eating nature, the cat's emotions are deeply linked to this strong instinct to survive by eating meat. Many expressions of a cat's feelings seem extremely closely related to the capture of live prey. An excited, happy or relieved cat may ambush and pounce on whatever triggers its pleasure…something most Bengal cat owners have experienced! A committed meat-eater may even express affection or gratitude toward his or her prey, which can be very touching as the cat is instinctively recognizing and appreciating that animal protein is its only source of food.

What is it that caused there to be some thirty-five different species of the cat, when they are all so basically similar? It is now thought that because cats have always roamed, and that, in prehistoric times, it was possible to cross land bridges to roam all the continents freely, which is difficult for us to imagine today.

Like their distant relatives the modern lynxes, the lynx-like Ur-Cats, (Pseudaelurus), probably lived in forests, and are assumed to have hunted large rodents and ground nesting birds. When the pressures of different habitats created changes in the Ur-Cat's bodies, the ocelots branched from the parent stem in South America about ten million years ago, and along with other little spotted mouse-catchers of the New World jungles, became known as the ocelot lineage.

Meanwhile, in the Old World, tabbies appeared that were colored to blend in with shadowy forests, and they were also wild cats. In the large, long-haired form, they were called "Felis sylvestris" (for the forests of Europe), and the smaller, short-haired form was known as "Felis sylvestris lybica" (for the forests of North Africa). Even when the forests of Africa turned to desert, the still-camouflaged African wildcats stayed on, hunting mice, and became often housecats, "Felis sylvestris catus". Thus, just as it is thought that humans first originated in Africa, so did our cats, and today those African wildcats and their domestic cousins are known as the domestic cat lineage.

Mother Tiger carrying her cub in her mouth

Mother Tigress carrying her young cub to safety

There is still some controversy over the origin of the "pantherines". One version puts the pantherines in the New World with a wildcat ancestor that grew larger, but not as large as the saber-toothed tiger which was already living in the New World. It makes sense that the pantherine would evolve to become large enough to hunt deer when they were available, but small enough to still hunt rabbits and smaller prey when that was necessary for survival. The result was the puma, which is really nothing more than a small cat grown to large proportions. Pumas purr loud and long like house cats, and also crouch above their food.

Cheetahs are often thought of as African, while pumas are thought of as American; yet the two cats have much in common. Because the cheetah hunted in the open plains, and the puma hunted in stealth in thick forest and tall grass, the two cats were not in competition and were able to live together in the New World. Cheetahs and pumas make trilling sounds, and chirps like birdcalls, and can also whistle, and they both have pupils that stay round and do not form slits like the pupils of wildcats or house cats. Both these cats have extremely long, heavy tails to give them balance, and both are extremely fast and rely on long-distance vision using high places as lookouts for their information. Pumas and cheetahs give birth to three or four cubs at a time, usually in a secluded cave-like area.

The other members of the pantherine lineage are the lynxes, who are the heirs-apparent to the modern day house cats. There have been many types of lynxes that have appeared over time, one of which, an Asiatic lynx, spread both west and east. In the east, there was an already established lynx called the bobcat, and today in Canada and parts of the United States, the two kinds of lynxes live side by side. Perhaps the ferocity of the bobcat is due to centuries of hardship…we may never know the answer to that frequently asked question.

It is the lynx family that gave rise to what we now refer to as the "big cats":  the lions, tigers, leopards and jaguars of the genus "Panthera". Like the lynxes, all the big cats are spotted, for at least part of their lives. But what about tigers? Actually, the stripes of the tiger are said to really be elongated spots, as on certain tigers it can be seen that the stripe is conspicuously open in the center, revealing it to be what it is, a leopard's rosette in a greatly elongated form.

About two million years ago, the clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) appeared, and the big cats evolved in increasingly larger sizes to hunt increasingly larger prey. Most of the big cats were very successful at establishing their colonies. In the Old World, the leopards were quite widespread, while in the New World, the jaguar managed to colonize most of the forested areas in the Americas except in the far north, thus competing with the deer-sized prey with the puma.

Lions are the most recent of the Pantheras, evolving on the savannahs of Africa only some 700,000 years ago. Until very recently, lions were everywhere that there were no glaciers, including North and South America, all across Asia, down into India, Europe and the British Isles, the Middle East and all into Africa. The northernmost lions were enormous, and known as cave lions, with the longer hair necessary to survive the Ice Age. They have only recently become extinct.

Interestingly, lions and tigers are so similar in size and shape that it is difficult to tell the difference in their skeletal remains, and can interbreed successfully although they don't usually do that in nature. Tigers not only have recognizable social units but also sometimes live together in small groups, usually consisting of a mother and two or three of her full-sized, but not quite adult young. Sometimes, even mature males will join these groups.

A young white male lion

A close look at a stunning young white male Lion

By the middle of the Pleistocene, cats of all sizes lived all over the world (with the exception of Australia), managing to adjust so perfectly to each other by keeping distance between them, and hunting different prey that they co-existed quite well.

Of particular interest to Bengal Cat lovers is the small Asian Leopard Cat, which has one of the widest geographical spread ranges of any of the Asian species of wild cat. Asia is the largest and most diverse of the world's continents, and covers almost one third of the total land mass of the earth today. Climate conditions in Asia range from the cold of the Arctic tundra to the wet monsoon areas of India and Burma, and south of the continent, the humid Rain Forests around the equator. The central area of the Asian land mass if dominated by a highland plateau region which contains many of the word's highest mountains. It is only natural that this incredible diversity is equaled by the many types of plant materials and wildlife which inhabit it.

The Leopard Cat can be found from parts of Pakistan to the west of its range, all across South East Asia to the east, and down through to the Philippine Islands. As a result of this broad range of territory, a large number of sub-species have evolved, with extreme differences in size, coloration and markings, as discussed earlier in this article which are necessary to survive. There is also much controversy as to whether certain sub-species should or should not be re-classified as separate species in their own right. The "Iriomote Cat" is one example which many people believe should be classified as a sub-species of the Leopard Cat "Prionailurus bengalensis iriomotensis", while others would put it as a separate species in the genus "Prionailurus". This may help explain the differences in markings, and names attached to various Leopard Cat photos and articles.

Usually found in forested or wooded areas, there are also Leopard Cats found in grasslands and desert areas that adjoin the forested areas. The main prey of the Leopard Cat is primarily small rodents; however they also hunt small birds and mammals, fish, insects, reptiles and amphibians. Generally, the Leopard Cat hunts by itself, at night, although it also hunts during the day as required.

And of course we must make a special mention of the unique and beautiful 35-50 pound African Serval Cat, widely recognized for their friendly natures; along with cheetahs, servals are probably the most comfortable of the wild cats with living in close promixity to humans. One of the newer hybrid cats being developed is the Savannah Cat, which is derived from the African Serval, crossed with domestic cats.

CLICK HERE For Our "History & Evolution of Wild Cats" (Photo Version)

P.O. Box 418104, Sacramento, CA 95841-8104, U.S.A.
(916) 481-CATS Phone/Fax; E-mail: holly@hdw-inc.com






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