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The World’s Wild Cats

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Prehistoric cats were not true cats, but cat-like mammals. True cats came from a group of animals who were part of the family of Feliodea/Aeluroidea.

Cats of the World, part 1
Prehistoric cats

Prehistoric cats were not true cats, but cat-like mammals. True cats came from a group of animals who were part of the family of Feliodea/Aeluroidea. This superfamily formed many subgroups, which over millions of years evolved into other species such as mongooses, lions, tigers and hyenas. Prehistoric cats like the Sabre-toothed Tiger came from a group called Machairodontinae. Other prehistoric cats also came from more unexpected groups such as marsupials. If you’re thinking marsupials are kangaroo-type creatures, you’re right. Marsupials are distinctive for having a pouch in which they carry their young. This doesn’t mean though that Sabre-toothed Tigers had pouches, they just evolved from this group.

Carnivorous mammals originated from a group of insectivores called the Miacids. This group of animals lived about 55 million years ago. The Miacids were split into three groups called the Miacidae, the Viverravidae and the Nimravids. Bears and dogs belonged to the Miacidae group, while feline creatures such as mongooses, hyenas and cats belonged to the Viverravidae group which was now called Feloidea. Cat-like creatures belonged to the Nimravids group.

About 30 million years ago, the first ever true cat evolved from the Feloidea group. This species was called Proailurus. The cat looked a bit like a weasel and had short legs and a long body. The second evolution gave rise to the Pseudaelurus. This cat looked like a lynx or puma. After this cat evolved, the group split into two again where the true Sabre-tooth appeared. This group was called the Machairodontinae.

The Machairodontinae
The Machairodontinae contains some of the extinct cats we know today as the sabre-toothed cats. The most famous of this group is the Smilodon. Also known as the Sabre-toothed Tiger, this cat lived approximately 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago in North and South America. This massive beast could weigh up to 400kg and had a short tail, muscular neck and powerful legs.
The exact social pattern of this animal is unknown, but it is thought they formed packs of scavengers and were lured in by distress calls from other animals.

A breakdown of the groups

 

Superfamily Feliodea/Aeluroidea Includes cats, hyenas, civets, mongooses
Family  Felidae Modern cats
Subfamily  Acinonychinae Cheetah family
Subfamily  Felinae Small cats
Subfamily  Pantherinae Big cats (lion, tiger etc)
Subfamily Machairodontinae Sabre-toothed cats (extinct)

 

Why are there no Sabre-tooth Tigers today?
Various sabre-toothed cats had adapted to hunt the mega-fauna that inhabited land until the end of the ice age. Mega-fauna means ‘large animals’. In today’s world mega-fauna would be animals like elephants, rhinos and moose. The changes in climate over the years led to the extinction of the mega-fauna, which in turn meant that these cats had nothing substantial to eat. The smaller cats, however, who could adapt to eating smaller prey, went on to become modern cats. Even with the amount of mega-fauna we have today such as our large population of elephants, this group would be too small to sustain sabre-tooth cats.
The sabre-tooth’s closest living relative alive today is the Clouded Leopard. This cat has the longest canines proportional to body size than any other cat. The length of his fangs is almost three times greater than the width of the fang at the gum. His canine teeth are also extremely sharp, just like sabre-toothed cats. There is also a large gap between the canines and the premolars, which enables them to take large chunks out of their prey, exactly the same way that the Sabre-tooth did it.

The world’s wild cats, part 2
The big cats of South America: the Puma, Jaguar and Ocelot

As their name suggests (‘Mau’ is Egyptian for cat), these cats are distinctly Egyptian and resemble the cats depicted on ancient wall paintings and papyrus scrolls.

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From Egypt to Italy
The modern Mau’s ancestors could have been the cats worshipped in Egypt, but the breed as we know it today dates back to 1953 in Italy. At the time, exiled Russian princess Natalie Troubetskoy saw a Mau, owned by the Egyptian ambassador to Italy. She immediately fell in love with this smoke-coloured cat and later obtained a similar kitten from Cairo. Together, the princess and the ambassador launched a breeding programme and in 1955 the first Egyptian Maus were exhibited at a cat show in Rome. In 1956 the princess travelled to the United States with her cats and so the breed was introduced there, but only received championship status in 1968.

All three of these cats, the Puma, the Jaguar and the Ocelot, are highly adaptable and have grown into their surroundings, making it their own. South America is full of many different types of habitats such as mountains, swamps and plains, which all three of them roam, while carefully not treading on the other’s paws.
The Puma and Jaguar wander the land looking for large prey like deer, moose and young cattle while occasionally snacking on hares and rabbits, depending on where they are. The Ocelot, however, is about a third of the size of the other two cats and prefers a more acquired meal of birds, lizards, armadillos, monkeys, turtles and anteaters.

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Spot the cat
The Puma, also known as the Cougar, Mountain Lion and Panther (even though a Panther is actually a type of Leopard), is amazingly adaptable and can live basically anywhere from deserts to swamps. Although he has some abnormally large parts to his body, he is nowhere near the size of the biggest cats in the world. The Puma is actually more closely related to smaller cats than to lions or tigers. His call is also a distinctive one to say the least and resembles the scream of a human, but amazingly he cannot roar. This call is most often heard when the Puma is courting.

The Jaguar is very similar looking to our own Leopard and is covered in rosettes that have dark centres. He is more powerful and larger than a Leopard. This is shown by his broader head and larger, muscular legs. Of the three South American cats, he is the least adaptable (but still very adaptable) and prefers to stay in a watery environment. The Jaguar is also the New World’s only ‘big’ cat.

The last big cat of South America is the Ocelot or Painted Leopard. He is also known as the McKenney’s Wildcat or Jaguatirica (in Brazil), or Manigordo (in Costa Rica). His fur is covered in chain-like rosettes which makes him very different from any other cat and easily distinguishable. You will also notice that his head is covered in stripes. Living anywhere from swamps and forests to grasslands and near water, he is highly compliant.

Conservation
All three of the big cats in South America have either been endangered or are at this moment endangered. The Jaguar is near threatened because of humans hunting them for their fur, and their numbers are still declining. The 1960s were the worst years for the Jaguar as each year brought in about 15,000 skins. Deforestation as well as cattle farmers (who kill them because their cattle have become prey) are also part of their threats.

Ocelots were also hunted for their fur extensively in the 1960s and 1970s. Their total count was worse with almost 200,000 skins being sold per year, but now thankfully the species is protected and their numbers have since slightly increased. Deforestation and habitat loss also pose a threat to this cat though.
The Puma is of least concern in these three cats, since in 1996 Puma hunting was prohibited in Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Columbia, Costa Rica and many other South American countries. The only places he is not protected is in Ecuador, El Salvador and Guyana as well as in North America.

A hybrid?
The Pumapard is the result of a Puma and a Leopard mating. In the late 1890s and early 1900s, a man named Carl Hagenbeck bred three sets of this hybrid in his animal park in Hamburg, Germany. Most of the animals died very early on in their lives but one was bought by the Berlin Zoo. Due to their line of genetics the Pumapard will always be born with some form of dwarfism which is likely to have resulted in their early deaths.

This rare breed, boasting the great attributes of both the Siamese and Abyssinian, was developed by accident. Good thing though, as the Ocicat not only sports unusual coat markings, but also makes a delightful companion.

An odd spotted kitten
During the early 1960s, Virginia Daly of Michigan in the USA decided to try her hand at developing a new variety of cat – Abyssinian-pointed Siamese. She crossed an Abyssinian with a Siamese. Her first generation resembled Abyssinians, so she bred them back to a Siamese with good results. One kitten, though, had very odd spotting and she called her Dalai Talua. Talua later became the foundation female of the Ocicat breed (Virginia’s daughter noticed a close resemblance with the ocelot – a wild cat from South America – hence the name Ocicat). Later on, American Shorthair cats were used to further develop the new breed and in 1986 the Ocicat was officially recognised.

Unique spotting
The Ocicat is characterised by detailed intricate lines on the face – frown lines on the forehead, mascara lines on the temples and cheeks and dark rims around the eyes. On the body the markings appear as spots, while the legs are adorned with clear bracelets.

Love human company
The Ocicat’s personality is a mix of that of the Siamese and Abyssinian. She is a highly social cat who loves human and feline company and responds very well to training. She is also very playful and curious. Ocicats need companions and do not make good solitary cats.

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Being a cat, territorial instinct is fierce and it shows with the South American small cats. They all amazingly keep to their own little piece of the land, careful not to put their paws into each other’s territories. The Andean cat, Margay, Geoffroy’s cat, Kodkod and Jaguarundi all abide by these ‘rules’ and call the swamps and forests of South America their home.

Cat and mouse
Most of these small cats prefer to eat small rodents including chinchillas, mice and rats. They also like to eat frogs and fish as well as possums. Most of them are nocturnal and hunt by night, except for the Kodkod who hunts by day as well.

Apart from their own menu, these cats are also on someone else’s menu – humans. People have been hunting the Margay and Geoffroy’s cat for hundreds of years. Hunted for their fur, they only recently became a protected species long after the Ocelot fur trade decrease in the late 1980s. After the period where the Ocelot became protected, the Margay and Geoffroy’s cat were put into the spotlight of hunters and were hunted extensively. Although hunting these cats is now illegal, unlawful hunting still continues.

Who’s who
Generally, the Felis group is solitary and the small South American cats are no exception. All of these cats are quite similar in appearance and size. The heaviest is the Jaguarundi, while the other cats all weigh about 4-6kg, apart from the Kodkod who is the smallest cat in the Americas, and only weighs 2kg.
The Andean cat or Mountain cat is sturdy with a long bushy tail and is covered in thick grey-brown fur that is marked with vertical stripes on his upper back, rosette-type spots on his flanks and bands on his legs and tail. The Kodkod or Güiña looks very similar to the Geoffroy’s cat, who has yellow-brown to silver-grey fur. The only differences are that the Kodkod has a smaller head and a thicker tail.
The Jaguarundi is the ugly duckling of the group and has a pointed snout, a long body and short legs. His fur is unpatterned but can be several different colours ranging from black to red to grey-brown.

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Whispers and whiskers

  • The cats that live in the forests of South America are always covered in spots. This is because their spots are camouflage and made to mimic the effect of sunlight coming through the leaves.
  • The Margay is an exceptional climber because his rear feet are ‘reversible’. This enables him to run head-first down a tree trunk or hang from a tree by one paw.
  • The Kodkod’s favourite place to live is bamboo thickets and he mostly builds his den here.
  • The Margay will normally only give birth to one cub; very rarely two cubs are born from the same litter.
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