The Living Bridge

Fact: A living bridge of almost thirty different wild cats connects house cats with the big cats.

Everybody – even a confirmed cat hater – recognizes a domestic cat. Most of us also know and love (from a safe distance) lions, tigers, and their close relatives.

What’s really hard is putting the two together – getting a feel for the family relationship between house cats and the big cats.

Our stereotypes get in the way. Fluffy isn’t the perfect carnivore! (Yes, it is.)  Tigers can’t be cute as well as dangerous. (Sure, they’re adorable!)

Here’s an easy way to see that deep connection between big cats and our pet.

According to geneticists (Nyakatura and Bininda-Emonds; O’Brien and Johnson):

  • Big cats evolved first, more than 10 million years ago. The experts disagree on the exact date but they’re pretty sure that lions, leopards, and jaguars developed in a group, while tigers and snow leopards developed in another group.
  • House cats and their wildcat (one word) ancestors came late to the party – around 400 Ka (thousand years ago), according to some experts. (Yamaguchi and others)
  • Every other wild cat (two words) on Earth today – almost thirty separate groups – originated between between those two extremes.

That’s the living bridge of wild cats that connects Fluffy with Leo and his close relatives.

There are five lineages of wild cats between the domestic cat and big cat lineages (O’Brien and Johnson).

Each line has several different kinds of cat, just as there are lions, tigers, and others in the big-cat lineage.

You might not have heard of all of these cats, but as this web site develops, you will be able to pull down a menu for each lineage and check out facts about each one, in plain English.

In the meantime, here is how it looks in “science speak” (the colored part):


“Panthera” and “Neofelis” are big-cat scientific names. Anything “Felis” is part of the domestic-cat lineage.

Featured image: FlashBuddy at Pixabay. Public domain.

“Cat science” image: Manabu Sakamoto and Marcello Ruta.  Open access per CC BY 4.0  Last accessed August 29, 2017.


Nyakatura, K., and Bininda-Emonds, O. R. P. 2012. Updating the evolutionary history of Carnivora (Mammalia): a new species-level supertree complete with divergence time estimates. BMC Biology. 10:12.

O’Brien, S. J., and Johnson, W. E. 2007. The evolution of cats. Scientific American. 297 (1):68-75.

Werdelin, L.; Yamaguchi, N.; Johnson, W. E.; and O’Brien, S. J.. 2010. Phylogeny and evolution of cats (Felidae), in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, ed. Macdonald, D. W., and Loveridge, A. J., 59-82. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Yamaguchi, N., Driscoll, C. A., Kitchener, A. C., Ward, J. M., and Macdonald, D. W. 2004. Craniological differentiation between European wildcats (Felis silvestris silvestris), African wildcats (F. s. lybica) and Asian wildcats (F. s. ornata): implications for their evolution and conservation. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society. 83:47-63.

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