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Sculptures by Phyllis Bone

Picture of lion in ovals
Carnivore Case


General features and members of the family

The cat family is one of four families of terrestrial cat-like mammals descended from the Viverraines (civet/genet like mammals). These four families are linked by the presence of an ossified segment in the auditory bulla of the inner ear; a feature not found in dog-like carnivorans. The separation between these two branches of terrestrial carnivores has been confirmed by a variety of other morphological and DNA-based characters.

The Family Felidae comprises:

Seven species of 'Big cats' in 3 genera:

  • The genus Panthera: lions (P. leo), tigers (P. tigris), leopards (P. pardus), jaguars (P. onca), snow leopards (P. uncia).
  • The genus Neofelis: clouded leopards (N. nebulosa)
  • The genus Acinonyx: cheetahs (A. jubatus).

Thirty species of 'Small cats' in the genus Felis.

While a large cat such as a tiger may be 2 - 3 metres long and weigh 384 kg; a small cat such as the black-footed cat may be only 40 cm long and weigh 1 - 2 kg. Traditionally members of the genus Felis are distinguished from the big cats belonging to the Pantherine lineage because they cannot roar. Molecular genetic data indicates that the small cats represent at least seven evolutionary lineages descended from a common ancestry.

Picture of Cheetah
A cheetah lying in the grass at Edinburgh zoo shows the typical appearance of members of the cat family: blunt flattened features, large eyes and large rounded ears. Fawn/brown colouring with tawny patterns and spots serve as adapted camouflage since most species live isolated existences in dense forests.

Adaptations for hunting

Wild Cat Skeleton
Skeleton of wild cat

Felids are strictly carnivorous and their morphology is the most highly specialised of all carnivorans for catching killing and devouring prey. They sit at the pinnacle of many food pyramids. For hunting they have binocular and colour vision and particularly good light/dark vision. In daylight they see as well as humans and in poor light their vision is six times as acute. Their rounded ears funnel sound to the inner ear. Felids share with canids the adaptive features of the limb bones required for swift running. With the exception of the cheetah, felids have retractable claws. The cheetah's claws are semi-retractable providing extra grip during its chasing sprints, which have been recorded to reach up to 110 km/hr.

Skulls, dentition and diet.

The basic dental formula of felids is I3/3; C1/1: PM 3/2; Molar 1/1 = 30. All felid premolars and molars show carnassial modifications and the third premolar has an extra feature - an anterior cusp for crushing bones. A lethal bite from the large canines can be inflicted with the aid of exceptionally strong masseter muscles and the classic Carnivoran feature - restricted vertical movement of the jaw. The tongue is covered with sharp papillae capable of cutting or ripping flesh and useful for grooming the fur. Big cats prey on a wide range of large mammals including domestic stock. The diet of small cats depends largely upon what is available but correlates with cat size.

Big cats

LionLion Skull
LionLion skull

The lion (Panthera leo) occurs in a variety of habitats - from savanna woodlands to desert - in Sub-Saharan Africa. It preys on large and medium sized mammals (such as the ungulates, zebras and antelopes that live in vast herds in the savannah) as well as smaller animals such as rodents, hares, birds and reptiles.

Tiger at Edinburgh ZooTiger Skull
Amur tigerTiger skull
Tigers (Panthera tigris) occur in a variety of habitats and regions from reed beds in Central Asia to tropical forests in South East Asia and temperate mixed conifer-deciduous forests in the Russian Far East. They hunt deer, wild pigs and domestic live stock plus larger species such as water buffalo and young rhinoceros and elephant.

Leopard at Edinburgh ZooLeopard Skull
Persian leopardLeopard skull

Leopards (Panthera pardus) have been classified into seven subspecies. The commonest is the African leopard, which occurs in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. The other six subspecies occur in scattered isolated populations in North Africa, Arabia and the Middle East. Leopards occur in a wide range of habitats from tropical forests to barren deserts, from cold mountains almost to urban suburbs providing they have a reasonable amount of cover, a supply of prey animals and freedom from persecution. The leopard's diet includes deer, wild pig, wild goat as well as domestic stock plus smaller animals such as porcupines, foxes, genets, jackals, primates, hares and reptiles.

Jaguar at Edinburgh ZooJaguar Skull
JaguarJaguar skull
The panther (Panthera onca), occurs in tropical forests, swamps, deserts and savanna in Central and South America where it preys on a range of animals: armadillo, large rodents such as capybara and agouti, anteaters, deer, tapirs, peccaries, otters and tortoises.

Small cats

European Wild CatWild cat skull
European wild catWild cat skull

European wild cat skull
The wild cat (Felis silvestris) occurs from Western Europe, including Britain, and North Africa to India. It lives in open forest, savanna and steppe. Wild cats feed on vertebrates - rodents (voles and woodmice), rabbits, hares, insectivores (shrews, hedgehogs), birds, reptiles - and arthropods.

Domestic CatDomestic Cat Skull
Domestic catFeral domestic cat skull

In urban areas, the domestic cat (Felis catus) preys on rodents, including young rats, and birds; in more rural areas, rabbits are an important prey animal. Domestic cats are thought to have evolved from small wild felids whose presence around homesteads was tolerated by man because the cats preyed on vermin that ate grain.
Puma Skull
Puma skull

Although the puma (Felis concolor) belongs to the genus Felis it is bigger than 'Big' cats such as the leopard and cheetah. Pumas occur across North and South America from Southern Canada to Patagonia inhabiting a wider array of ecological zones than any other terrestrial New World mammal: desert, tropical forest, savanna and alpine steppe. Mainly active at twilight, the puma's diet ranges from small rodents to fully grown deer and includes guanaco, peccary, hares, smaller carnivores, porcupines, birds and domestic livestock.

Fishing Cat Skull
Fishing cat skull

The fishing cat (Felis viverrina) inhabits forests, swamps and marshy areas of Java and Sumatra, Southern India and China where it preys on fish, small mammals, birds, insects and crustaceans.

Dog-like carnivorans Aquatic carnivorans Cat-like carnivorans