I think, therefore I harm
Did you miss parts 1 and 2?
Now that we have explored truly prehistoric cats, let’s move on and find out how the modern cats came to be.
History is described as what has been written. Therefore, everything before invention of writing by Ancient Egyptians about 5000 years ago is referred to as prehistory. By this definition, modern cats are still prehistoric animals, as they appeared nearly 10 million years ago.
Last week, I mentioned that Pseudaelurus gave rise to two subfamilies. I wasn’t lying, but I wasn’t telling you everything. Because, hey, I needed to write a third part. As you know by now, it first generated that family of monstrous beasts we wouldn’t call cats by any today’s standard. But then, it didn’t give rise to just one other subfamily, but to two of them. By today’s standard, these subfamilies are collectively called modern cats.
Though it is known that modern cats first appeared in Asia, it is unclear by what mean they arrived there. What we know is that these two subfamilies appeared concurrently at about the same time in the same place. Not all species survived to this day, and many of those still alive today are on the edge of the cliff. Cats are native to every continents, except Australia and, obviously, Antarctica. How they managed to fill the world and their exact relationship with each other is not clear.
Though the modern cats as a whole must have emerged over 10 million years, the species alive today are thought to be relatively recent, with estimates ranging from 1.2 to 2 million years.
The first of these families is Pantherinae. See, I told you modern cats were still prehistoric. Pantherinae includes most of today’s large cats. The better known members are tigers, lions, jaguars and leopards. These four form the genus Panthera. The tiger, the largest cat species alive, resides in Asia. The lion, the only social cat of the subfamily, took home in Africa. The leopard, the smallest of the four, historically covered both Africa and Asia, but was mostly exterminated from the later in recent history. The jaguar, the youngest member, migrated and settled in South America.
No species is called panther. The term refers to a member of the Panthera genus of the Pantherinae subfamily. In familiar language, though, a panther most often refers to an all black specimen of leopard, jaguar or cougar (the later is not a Panthera, not even a Pantherinae).
Other members of Pantherinae are snow leopards, somewhat large cats, who live exclusively in frozen heights of central Asia. Finally, two different species of clouded leopards, small cats also from Asia.
The other subfamily of modern cats is Felinae. These cats are mostly small to medium in size. They include every other cats which I did not mention in the other subfamily above. The largest of these is the cougar, found in most of South America and the western third of North America. Others worth of mention are the lynx, the cheetah, the serval, the ocelot and the domestic cat.
Technically, only members of Felinae can be described as feline, although we often include large cats of the other subfamily in informal speech.
At first glance, it is easy to confuse the members of each of these subfamilies. All of the modern cats seem to be related with each other. However, DNA studies reveal that the last common ancestor of these subfamilies is Pseudaelurus. Pantherinae and Felinae have evolved on a separate path for over 15 million years. The fact that they evolved few distinctive traits, and yet survived for this long, shows that cats did not need any further changes in order to adapt to the different environments they went through.
On a closer inspection, a few subtle differences helps distinguish among members of these groups. All proportion considered, Pantherinae have a larger head, a longer nose, round and small ears and a slim, pointy tail. In comparison, Felinae have a much smaller head, a shorter nose, larger and pointy ears, and a longer, larger tail. Consider the picture to the right, showing a female lion and a cougar, which could easily be mixed with each other if only the general features are considered. In fact, the cougar is often called mountain lion in the west. However, a closer inspection makes them visibly different. They are left intentionally unidentified, but it should be easy for you to distinguish them following the clues I just provided you.
Not all cats of the group which we call modern cats survived to this day. For each species still alive today, another went extinct before this point. Many of them went extinct in the last century.
In the 20th century alone, no less than 5 species of large cats were brought to extinction by excessive growth of human population and by extended hunting. Two of these were lions, three were tigers.
The ocelot, a small Felinae, have been extensively hunted during the 60s and 70s for its prized fur. It was once considered on the edge of extinction, but has recovered and is now a lesser concern. However, many more cat species are currently in danger to some degree.
The domestic cat, bearing its name for obvious reasons, is thought to have been first adopted as a pet by Ancient Egyptians, about 4000 years ago. However, a grave estimated to be 9500 years old was found containing the skeletons of both a human and a cat, suggesting that cats were already being domesticated by that time, however probably infrequently.
The Romans are attributed the introduction of domestic cats from Egypt to Europe. Today, cats are adopted as pets everywhere around the world, on every continent. Some more liberal surveys suggest that there are up to 500 million domestic cats in the world, including both domesticated and wild specimens.
Feral cats, domestic cats which returned to a wild life, are also present everywhere in the world, introduced in non native land by humans.