Leopard cat

Wild cats includes Old World species such as lions, tigers and leopards and New World species such as jaguars and ocelots. Lynxes are found in both the Old World and the New World, namely because they live in the northern latitudes and have been able to move across the Bering Strait and Arctic when they have been frozen or linked by land bridges.

Felidae is the biological family of the cats; a member of this family is called a felid, or sometimes feline, which technically is an adjective. The felid is defined as any of various lithe-bodied roundheaded fissiped mammals, many with retractile claws. Lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, jaguars, ocelots, and domesticated cats all belong to the felid family. The greatest variety of felids are found in the Old World, where snow leopards, fishing cats, leopard cats and clouded leopards are found as well as lions and tigers.

The word cat is derived from the Indo-European word “ ghad”, meaning grasp or catch. In addition to the well known large species of cats there are several dozen species of small cat, many of which are elusive and mysterious and little is known out them.

David Attenborough wrote that cats are “closely-related family of hunters that seldom eat anything other than flesh. They are th most specialized of all mammalian hunters. They have short snouts and high-domed skulls which provide attachments for massive jaw muscles. They have the strongest carnassial teeth and the longest canines.

History of Cats


Nicholas Wade wrote in the New York Times: “Dr. O'Brien said the cats were very successful predators, second only to humans, and quickly explored new territories as opportunity arose. Sea levels were low from 11 million to 6 million years ago, enabling the first modern cats, in paleontologists' perspective (saber-tooth tigers are ancient cats), to spread from Asia west into Africa, creating the caracal lineage, and east into North America, generating the ocelot, lynx and puma lineages.

“The leopard lineage appeared around 6.5 million years ago in Asia. The youngest of the eight lineages, which led eventually to the domestic cat, emerged some 6.2 million years ago in Asia and Africa, either from ancestors that had never left Asia or more probably from North American cats that had trekked back across the Bering land bridge. Sea levels then rose, confining each cat species to its own continent, but sank again some three million years ago, allowing a second round of cat migrations. It was at this time that the ancestors of the cheetah and the Eurasian lynxes colonized the Old World from the New.

“Chris Wozencraft, an authority on the classification of carnivorous mammals, said the new cat family tree generally agreed with one that he had just published in Mammal Species of the World, a standard reference. Cat fossils are very hard to tell apart, because they differ mostly just in size, and the DNA data emerging over the last decade has helped bring the field from confusion to consensus, Dr. Wozencraft said.

Cat Features

tiger whiskers

While other animals such as human beings, dogs, bears and elephants went through great evolutionary changes to get where they are today, cats evolved from a 30-million-year-old creature called a “Proailurus” that is virtually identical to modern wild cats. About the size and shape of an ocelot, the “Proailurus” is believed to have spent half of its time in trees. [Source: Cathy Newman, National Geographic, June 1997]

According to DNA evidence gathered by Warren Johnson and Stephen O’Brien of the National Cancer Institute ancient panther-like cats appeared in Asia about 11 million years ago and made there way to the Americas about 9 million years ago during an Ice Age on a land bridge between Siberia and Alaska across the Bering Strait. Later several American species made their way back to Asia. Migrations back and forth helped create the wide variety of cat species. [Source: Nicholas Wade, New York Times, January 6, 2006]

All cats belong to eight different lineages. Cats from Asia that spread to Africa between 11 million and 5 million years ago gave birth to the caracal lineage. Those that moved east to the Americas gave birth the ocelot, lynx and puma lineages. The leopard cat lineage appeared in Asia about 6.5 million years ago. A total of ten migrations have been recorded. Cheetahs originated in North America and made their way across the Bering Strait to Asia about three million years ago and moved on to Africa.

Cats of different species are remarkably similar in their basic design. They generally have sharp teeth, strong jaws, and powerful leg muscles. They can run fast, make bounding leaps and climb trees. Their sizes and differences are mostly manifestations of their habitat and the prey they pursue.

Cats have a broad face and short jaw which gives them a powerful bite. Cathy Newman of National Geographic compared the short jaw with bolt cutters which have much leverage and power than longer needlenose pliers.

Cat markings — usually stripes, spots or rosettes — act as camouflage for particular habitats: solid colors blend into to open country; stripes mimic shadows cast by tall grass; and mottled colors are suited for the shadowy world of the forest. David Attenborough wrote: “the majority of cat species are solitary hunters living in dense forest. Most have mottled variegated coast that provide them with superlative camouflage. The considerable variation in coat patterns between individuals make it easy to recognize particular animals.

Erin Friar McDermott wrote in National Geographic: “ William Allen of the University of Bristol took a digital approach to breaking the camouflage code...After comparing photos of the cats with a mathematical model of pattern development on their flanks, Allen and colleagues concluded that the complexity of many coat patterns was related to habitat. Spotted cats are typical of closed environments like forests; plain-coated ones tend to inhabit open spaces. Behavior also plays a role. The more time a cat spends in trees and is active at night, for instance, the more elaborately marked its coat is likely to be. “In evolutionary time perhaps cats can change their patterning relatively easily,” says Allen.”

Cat Claws and Tongues

retractable claws

All cats but cheetahs have retractable claws that flip out like switchblades when needed but stay covered the rest of the time to prevent them from wearing out and interfering with normal walking. Cat claws are among the sharpest in the animal kingdom. They can easily rip apart and disembowel almost any animal. They retract through a system of muscles, tendons and elastic ligaments.

The tongues of most cats feel like sandpaper and some times are rough enough to rip off skin. The rough sandpaper-like texture is caused by horny hooked projection called papillae that enable cats to scrap meat off bones and lap up water and other liquids. Cat tongues curl to lap up liquids and flatten to expose the papillae when scraping meat. Cats also use their tongues to lick their fur clean and expose their signature scent.

Cat Senses

Cats have excellent vision and hearing and use both sight and sound to hunt and detect movement. Cats are very adept at determining the source of a sound. When they hear something that catches their attention they instantly turn their heads in the direction it comes from. Cats with large ears can pick up faint sounds and rely more on their hearing for hunting.

Cat whiskers are sensitive sensory organs that feel. They help cats negotiate tight spaces and allow them to detect the best place to deliver a killing bite to their prey. One zoologist told National Geographic that "blind cats find their way around familiar places using their whiskers and ears alone."

Cats have scent glands on their cheeks. House cats sometimes rub themselves against people and then lick their fur to get a taste of people's scent. Cats in the wild may do the same thing on tree or bushes that have scents of other animals or cats.

Cats possess a special sensory organ, called a Jacobsen's organs located at the roof of their mouth. that detect chemicals picked up form the environment. Lizards and snakes also possess this organ.

Cat Sight

Sumatran tiger

Sight is the most important sense to a cat. During the day they can see about as well humans. Its night vision however is six times more sensitive than a human’s night vision. Cat eyes have huge pupils that bulge out and collect light coming in from all directions. In the dark the pupils enlarge to cover almost their entire eyes.

Cats and other nocturnal animals have a thin, iridescent layer of light-reflecting cells behind the retina called the tapeutm. Light strikes the mirror surface of these cells and bounces back at the retina, allowing in more light into the eye and helping these animals see and hunt in faint light or environments perceived as total darkness by humans. When a large amount of light is collected it is reflected back out, causing the eyes to glow.

Cats have good depth perception. Their close-set eyes give them binocular vision which helps them judge distances and pick out prey from the background. They also have good peripheral vision.

Unlike many other animals, cats like to look other animals straight in the eye. When they are young many cats have blue eyes as the get older their eyes turn green or amber.

Cat Movements

Flexible front limbs, strong muscles, loose skin, and a loosely-connected, flexible spine account for a cat’s speed, agility and ability to leap far, climb trees, twist in the air and quietly stalk prey. Their long tails provide balance.

Cats can survive long falls by quickly flipping to a face-down position with its "righting reflex" and absorbing the impact with stretched out legs, spread toes and an arched back. A domestic cat that fell from a 46-story window suffered only a broken tooth.

The length of cat’s legs reflect the animal’s habitat. Cats that live in open country like the savannah have long legs for running. Those that live in the forest have shorter legs adapted for moving in tight spaces, climbing trees and make short range ambushes of prey. Cats, camels and giraffes are the only known animals that move their front and hind legs on one side and then the other.

Cat Feeding

fishing cat

All cats are carnivores. Unlike some carnivores such as bears, that also eat berries and honey, cats live almost exclusively on meat. If they are unable to get meat they go hungry. Sometimes cats eat grass or other plants but cannot digest them. In lean times, large cats sometimes survive on frogs.

Cats have pointed canine teeth and large blade-like back teeth, called carnassials, which are used to tear meat into easily digestible slices which they swallow whole without chewing. The small incisors and raspy tongue are used to clean off every last scarp of meat from the bones. The claws are used to rip open the skin.

The cat family (felids) is one of three modern families of carnivores hunting and bringing down prey several times their size. The other two are the hyena family (hyaenids) and canids (dogs, foxes, jackel, wolves). Chris Carbone of the Zoological Institute of London worked out that at a body weight threshold of about 20 kilograms mammals have to be able to kill prey larger than themselves to secure enough calories to keep their big bodies going whereas small predators can sustain themselves on invertebrates such as insects, centipedes and scorpions.

Cat Hunting

Cats are solitary hunters who hunt at night and day and rely on sight and hearing and find their prey nd kill it quickly with well-placed bites. By contrast, dogs and wolves hunt in a group, rely on their sense of smell to track prey, attack en mass and tear pieces off their prey and eat them while their prey is still alive.

Cats usually stalk their prey — often creeping along with their bellies on the ground, their heads down and ears flattened — and bring their prey down with a dramatic final rush. They are very patient and very quiet. They move when their prey does and stop when it does and have the ability to freeze in mid stride. When they get close enough, the coil up like a spring in preparation for the final lunge.

Cats often swat their prey with their forelimb and/or tackle it by leaping and grabbing their prey while the cat’s hind legs are anchored on the ground for balance. They kill their prey with their claws, canine teeth and well-positioned bites to the skull, neck or vertebra. Some cats kill with a suffocation bite to the necks, clamping the throat shut until the prey suffocates. Others kill with a bit to the neck that forces the neck vertebra apart, essentially breaking its neck.

Large Carnivores Help Ecosystems

In January 2014, AFP reported: “The gradual decline of large carnivores such as lions, wolves or pumas is threatening the Earth's ecosystems, scientists warned as they launched an appeal to protect such predators. More than 75 per cent of 31 large carnivore species are on the decline, and 17 of them now occupy less than half of their former ranges, says a study published in the American journal Science. [Source: AFP, January 10, 2014]

"Globally, we are losing large carnivores," wrote William Ripple, lead author of the study and a professor in the Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society at Oregon State University. "Many of them are endangered," Ripple wrote. "Their ranges are collapsing. Many of these animals are at risk of extinction, either locally or globally. And, ironically, they are vanishing just as we are learning about their important ecological effects."

Ripple and his colleagues reviewed published scientific reports and focused on seven species that have been studied for their widespread ecological effects. They are African lions, leopards, Eurasian lynx, cougars, gray wolves, sea otters and dingoes. The different reports show that a decline in pumas and wolves in Yellowstone National Park led to an increase in animals that feed on tree leaves and bushes, such as deer and elk. This disrupts the growth of vegetation and shifts populations of birds and small mammals, the researchers said.

In Europe, fewer lynx have been tied to overpopulation of roe deer, red foxes and hares, while in Africa the disappearance of lions and leopards has coincided with a dramatic increase in the number of olive baboons, which threaten farm crops and livestock. In Alaska, a decline in sea otters through killer whale depredation has triggered a rise in sea urchins and loss of kelp beds.

"Nature is highly interconnected," said Ripple. "The work at Yellowstone and other places shows how one species affects another and another through different pathways." For instance, avoiding overpopulation of herbivores allows forest flora to develop more and sequester more carbon dioxide, the main green house gas responsible for global warming. But the authors of the study say it will be very hard to convince people to accept a large scale restoration of large carnivore populations. People are afraid of them and have fought them to protect their livestock and their communities, they said.

How Cats Drink Water Without Getting Wet

Marc Kaufman wrote in the Washington Post, Four researchers at the the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have painstakingly filmed, analyzed and determined how it is that a cat can drink water while (unlike a dog) keeping its chin and whiskers pleasingly dry. The answer involves an exquisite demonstration of physics: The cat, in effect, balances the forces of gravity against the forces of inertia, and so quenches its thirst. While a dog curls its tongue like a ladle to collect the water and then pull up what it can, a cat curves its tongue under and slightly back, leaving the top surface of the tip of the tongue to lightly touch the liquid. The cat then raises its tongue rapidly, creating an upward mini-stream of water. The cat snaps its mouth shut and the water is captured before the countervailing force of gravity pulls it down. [Source: Marc Kaufman, Washington Post, November 12, 2010]

An average house cat, the team found, can make four of these mini-streams per second. "What we found is that the cat uses fluid dynamics and physics in a way to absolutely optimize tongue lapping and water collection," said Jeffrey Aristoff, now at Princeton University but who was one of the four researchers who began the study out of curiosity at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Nobody had ever studied it before, so nobody knew how the water went from the bowl into the cat's mouth," he said. Not surprisingly, they found that cats lap at precisely the rate that would get them the most water for the effort expended. The team's results are described in an article released by the journal Science.

The four researchers went to several zoos to observe and film tigers, jaguars, lions and ocelots, and went to YouTube to find videos of bobcats, cheetahs, leopards and lionesses drinking in the wild. They found the same basic drinking mechanism in all the cats, though the larger ones (with larger tongues) slowed their lapping to best take advantage of the physics at play - that is, the balance between upward movement of the water set off by the cat's tongue (the inertia) and the gravity pulling the water down. A lion, Aristoff said, laps about two times per second.

"In the beginning of the project, we weren't fully confident that fluid mechanics played a role in cats' drinking," said Sunghwan Jung, now an engineer at Virginia Tech., whose research focuses on soft bodies, such as fish, and the fluids surrounding them. "But as the project went on, we were surprised and amused by the beauty of the fluid mechanics involved in this system."

Aristoff explained the dynamics at work: You're in the shower and turn on the hot water. The steam starts to rise, and that upward flow lowers the pressure levels at your knees. The result is that the inside of the shower curtain will billow in toward you, unless you have some weight attached to the curtain to stop it. That interplay of motion and pressure parallels the dynamic that quenches the cat's thirst.

The researchers said there could be useful implications gleaned from their "fundamental" research. Engineers, for example, are moving into the field of "soft robots" and are working on the basic properties of nonmetallic parts that may play a role. Aristoff said there's great interest in creating robots that can walk on water, and this research could help. This new cat-drinking research follows by 70 years related work done by Harold "Doc" Edgerton, who first used strobe lights to capture stopped action on film. His photography, which uncovered some of the secrets of how cats drink, was featured in an Academy Award-winning short called "Quicker'n a Wink."

Cat Behavior

Cats are largely solitary. The primary social group for cats is a mother and her young. Adult males and females usually have little to do with one another except when they are mating. Adult cats of the same sex don’t hang much together either.

Cats are very fastidious about keeping themselves clean. They spend a lot of time grooming and licking themselves. One reason for this is that it is important for them not to have a strong odor which warns their prey of their presence.

Cats rarely pant and don’t slurp or drool when they drink. Only their footpads sweat. Their flexible body allows them to be able to lick almost every part of their body. The same hook-like appendages of their tongues (papillae) that help them rip meat off bones also hold fluids when they lap up water. All cats, large and small, lick their paws and scrub their faces in pretty much the same way.

Cats spend up to two third of their time sleeping. In this way they conserve their energy for the necessities of life: hunting, breeding and taking care of young. Their muscles are also designed to expend large amounts of energy quickly and thus need time to recuperate. Because cats have rapid eye movement during sleep some scientist believe they dream. Wild cats are thought to do alright in captivity because the spend most of their time just lying around.


Cat Communication

Although cats are mostly solitary they have an elaborate system of vocal, visual and olfactory communication that defines territory, warns of an attack and advertises sexual receptivity.

Cats make at least 12 vocalizations including meows, screams, chirps and twitters. When they are angry they hiss and growl, flatten their ears on their heads and whip their tails around like a snake. Cats are the only known animals that purrs. Most cats purr to express contentment. The sound is produced by two folds of skin behind the vocal chords.

Cats have a voice box with two sets of vocal cords. The lower ones, the true ones, produce the growling and roaring noises. The upper ones are called false chord. When a cat is relaxed, these chords vibrate to produce the soften fluttering purring sound.

Roaring, See Different Kinds of Cat Below

Cat Scent Communication

Big cats often communicate with each other through scents, hormones and pheremones left on their feces and urine. Through scent a cat can often tell the sex, age, sexual receptivity of the animal that left it, what the animal had eaten and no doubt things that only cats understand.

Cats have numerous scent glands. They are located all over their body: around the mouth, cheeks and chin, on the back of their tails, between their toes. The scents are left wherever they pass and are used to mark territories, advertise sexual receptivity, and establish social bonds.

Males spray urine backwards onto bushes and trees at nose level. Dominant males splash their urine around and leave their feces more prominently than lesser males. Scent trails are often updated with cats erasing traces of their rivals and leaving their own scents.

Cat Sex

Cats are polygamous. Males often compete with one another for the rights to females. Sex itself is often rough and unrelenting. Males often bite into females during sex and females often bite back. Some species have sex every 20 or 40 minutes for hour after hour.

Males have a retractable penis with a tip covered with spines. Females need to be stimulated through copulation to begin ovulating and produce eggs to be fertilized. Ovulation is believed to be triggered by the intense pain caused when the male withdraws his pine-covered penis.

Females are only in heat for a few days. They announce they are in estrus by spraying their urine which contains glandular secretions. When males pick up this scent with their Jacobson’s organ the scent overwhelms them so much they wrinkle their nose, curl their upper lip and grimace in what is called the “flehmen” response

Courtship often is a drawn out affair, with a great deal of visual and vocal communication between the male and female. The female often initially refuses the male, and growls and spits to show her contempt. As the estrus progresses she becomes more approachable: stretching and rubbing against objects and then against the male to show she is ready.

Cat Young

Cats are born helpless. Some cats are born with their eyes open. Others with their eyes closed. A mother protects her young by circling her tail around them and carrying them from place to place with the scruff of their necks in her mouth. Most young are hidden in secluded places, which are regarded as safe enough to leave the young alone while the mother hunts. Often times the biggest threat come from cannibalistic males.

Females generally raise their young without the help of males. Mothers are very affectionate and patient with their young. They act as protectors, playmates and teachers. They teach their young how to hunt by taking them along and then let them practice on small game.

Young cats live to play. They like to chase things and bat them about on their paws. Much of what they do has applications to hunting.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, Natural History magazine, Smithsonian magazine, Wikipedia, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Top Secret Animal Attack Files website, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, The Economist, BBC, and various books and other publications.

Last updated July 2022

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