Class: Mammalia (Mammals)
Size: largest—mountain lion Puma concolor, head and body length 3 to 6.3 feet (1 to 2 meters); smallest—black-footed cat Felis nigripes and rusty-spotted cat Prionailurus rubiginosa head and body length 13 to 19.5 inches (34 to 50 centimeters)
Weight: largest—mountain lion at 79 to 227 pounds (36 to 103 kilograms); smallest—rusty-spotted cat at 2.4 to 3.5 pounds (1.1 to 1.6 kilograms)
Life span: 10 to 30 years, depending on species
Number of young: 1 to 6
Gestation: 2 to 3 months, depending on species
Size at birth: 1.4 to 15.7 ounces (39 to 450 grams), depending on species
Age of maturity: 6 months to 3 years, depending on species
Conservation status: Spanish lynx Lynx pardinus at critical risk; Andean mountain cat Oreailurus jacobita, Bornean bay cat Catopuma badia, and Iriomote cat Felis iriomotensis are endangered; 17 other small cat species are vulnerable.
The African wild cat Felis silvestris libyca is
thought to be the ancestor of today’s domestic house cats.
The earliest evidence of domestic cats was found in a 4,000-year-old
tomb in Egypt. It contained 17 cat skeletons, each with a pot
of milk for the afterlife.
Margays Leopardus wiedii can run headfirst down a tree trunk like a squirrel and even hang upside down by their feet from branches.
Not all cats hate water. The leopard cat Prionailurus bengalensis, fishing cat Prionailurus viverrinus, flat-headed cat Prionailurus planiceps, and Geoffroy’s cat Oncifelis geoffroyi all swim and hunt for amphibians and fish in streams and rivers.
The caracal Caracal caracal can jump 6 feet (1.8 meters) straight up to knock a bird out of the air, even twisting nimbly to catch another bird on the other side before coming down to the ground.
Nicknamed "the tiger of the termite mound,” the black-footed cat of Africa digs in the sand to find insects and spiders, which it eats in addition to rodents.
Cat tongues are rough because they are covered with rows of rough bumps called papillae, which scrape hair off hides and meat off bones. They also help hold water on the tongue when the cat drinks.
- Clouded Leopard
- Fishing Cat
- Lynx & Bobcat
- Mountain Lion
- Snow Leopard
Listen to a lynx!
Mammals: Small Cat
Range: species found in all parts of the world, except Australia and
Surprisingly, some of the "small cats” are rather large, like the mountain lion (sometimes called a puma or cougar), which most people think is one of the big cats. Zoologists group cats by certain physical features, not really by size.
Roar or purr?— One feature that separates small cats from large is their throat structure, which gives the cat the ability to roar and purr. The group of small cats cannot roar like the big cats do, because the bones in their throats are hardened and close together and can only produce smaller vibrations. Instead, they mew, scream, and growl. Anyone with a house cat knows that small cats can purr nonstop whether they are breathing in or out, but big cats can’t purr continuously. They can only purr when they breathe out. The purr is interrupted when the cat breathes in. As a result, some big cats make a noise keepers refer to as a " chuffle.”
Eyes— Another difference is the cat’s eyes. A small cat’s pupil closes to a vertical (up and down) slit, while a big cat’s pupil closes to a circle, like a human’s pupil.
Nose— Small cats have a strip of leathery skin across the top of their noses, directly above the wet tip. On big cats, this area is covered with fur.
Like the unicorn, small cats have been the stuff of legends. Many of these cats have never been studied in their natural habitats, which is often in rugged, remote areas. Many small cats are active only at night, making it hard for researchers to study them. Until recently, the bay cat Catopuma badia of Borneo was known to exist only in stories and identified by a few skins in museums. It was not actually studied in the wild until the late 1990s! There are reports of a cat known only as the onza from Mexico, which may be related to the mountain lion. It is as big as a mountain lion but more slender. Scientists have only seen one, which had been killed by hunters.
There is also the Iriomote cat Prionailurus bengalensis iriomotensis (named for the small Japanese island near Taiwan where it lives), which was only discovered in 1965. It has been declared a national treasure by the government of Japan, but there may be fewer than 100 of these cats left. And have you ever heard of the kodkod Oncifelis guigna? Only people who really know small cats can say they have, and almost nothing is known about this cat that is native to a small area in Chile and Argentina.
Wild cats and house cats
Why is one wild and the other tame? Many scientists believe that the house cat, or domestic cat Felis catus, came from some of the wild small cat species, particularly the African, Arabian, and European wild cats. At some point in time—some people think it started in Egypt about 4,000 years ago—people started feeding and taming wild cats in their part of the world, and the cats got used to living with people. Over a long period of time, these cats were bred among each other and became separate from the wild populations, and they also moved with humans to many parts of the world. This process—called domestication—has happened with other animals, such as dogs, cattle, horses, and pigs.
Small cats, big family
Small cats are found in habitats ranging from icy mountains to steamy tropical jungles to scorching deserts. The only places they are not native to are Australia, its surrounding islands, and Antarctica. Living in such a variety of habitats, these cats have many different ways to survive and hunt for food. The fishing cat Prionailurus viverrinus has webbed toes and is a good swimmer. It catches prey on land and in the water. The sand cat Felis margarita of North Africa and the Middle East survives in a land with very little water by hunting at night and sleeping and keeping cool during the day. The long legs of the stately serval Leptailurus serval allow it to make spectacular leaps into the air to catch birds in flight. In contrast, the short, thick legs of the mountain-dwelling Pallas’s cat Otocolobus manul allow it to climb easily on rocky slopes. In the tropical rain forests of South America, the beautiful spotted margay Leopardus wiedii and the tiny oncilla Leopardus tigrina are able to share their habitat because the margay hunts in trees and the oncilla hunts on the ground.
The better to see you with
All cats have keen senses, which they need to locate and stalk their prey. Like us, cats have forward-facing eyes. But they can open their pupils three times wider and see in the dark six times better than people can. Cats have a layer of tissue in their eyes called the tapetum lucidum, which bounces light back through the retina a second time and increases the amount of light the cat has to see by. That’s what causes the “eyeshine” that you see with cats at night, when their eyes seem to glow red or green. Cats can also focus clearly and quickly for long and short distances. Without moving their heads they can detect movement within a visual field of 280 degrees—which means they can see out of the corner of their eyes a lot better than we can!
Hearing is another important sense for a cat. Each ear is controlled by more than 20 muscles, and the ears move independently of each other, so one can be pointed forward while the other is pointed back. Their ears can quickly turn to catch sounds in all directions, including behind the cat. Cats can hear the ultrasonic noises that small prey like rodents make, which are beyond our hearing range.
More than a feeling
Eyes and ears aren’t a cat’s only tools. They also have very sensitive whiskers, called vibrissae, on their lips, cheeks, chins, eyebrows, and forelegs that give them information about their environment. The whiskers are deeply embedded in the skin and connected to nerve endings that transmit information to the brain, so a cat can feel its way as it moves. They "read” air currents and the locations of obstacles and items around them, like grass and branches, in order to stalk almost silently. When capturing prey, the whiskers around the face all point forward like a net, to detect exactly where the prey is and where it might go.
Small cats’ numbers are getting smaller
Scientists fear that the numbers of most small cats are declining for two reasons.
Fur Trade— Since the penalties for hunting big cats have increased, people have begun hunting the small spotted cats for their fur. Coats made from cat fur are still popular in parts of Europe and Asia. Since small cats have smaller skins, as many as 25 cats must be killed to make one fur coat. Like their larger cousins, small cats can be helped if people stop wearing their fur.
Loss of Habitat— The other threat to the survival of small cats is loss of their habitat due to development of towns, cities, and farms. When people move into their habitat, small cats are often viewed as a threat to pets, livestock, or humans, and so they are killed. We can protect small cats by preserving their habitat and by learning to live with them. Keep in mind that they are important predators that control populations of potential pests like rodents.