Today is the last day for a free download of my latest eBook about cats–next week, we start getting into the rest of the cat family in more detail! Meanwhile, hope you enjoy this updated chapter from the book.
There’s an old saying that house cats give us the opportunity to safely caress the tiger in our living room.
It’s true. Apart from scale, big cats really are much like their smaller relatives.
So, just where does Fluffy fit into the cat family Felidae?
These Old World natives have left few fossils, but paleontologists believe that they first appeared about 450,000 years ago in Europe.
Fluffy’s group, represented by Sid and Louise up there, branched off 20,000 years ago, heading south and southeast. Along the way, it had to contend with cat and sabercat lines that were millions of years old.
What do we know about the cat family’s history?
The next eBook in this series is about the cat family. For now, let’s just look at the family’s general evolution, according to one widely accepted study (Johnson and others in 2006).
- The common ancestor of today’s big cats appeared first, around 11 million years ago (Ma).
- Next came the bay cat lineage, 9.4 Ma.
- The ancestor of caracals, servals, and African golden cats showed up 8.5 Ma.
- The forebear of most South American small cats (but not the jaguar, which is in the big-cat group) appeared 8 Ma.
- Proto-lynxes arrived 7.2 Ma.
- The line of cougars, jaguarondis, and cheetahs (yes, these modern cats are related) began 6.7 Ma.
- The leopard cat lineage (these researchers include Pallas cats in it) debuted 6.2 Ma.
- Finally, around 3.4 Ma, came Felis. The oldest modern member of this group is probably the jungle cat. At 450,000 years old, wildcats are the youngest wild species, but domestic cats–whether you call them F. catus, F. silvestris, or F. s. catus–only go back some 10,000 years. Nevertheless, the scientists, of course, have named this the domestic cat lineage.
What about the sabertooths?
Short answer: They’re part of the cat family, too, but only distantly related to modern cats. The fourth book in this series will be about them.
People used to think modern cats evolved from them until sabercat DNA from Patagonia and the Yukon was analyzed. It showed these toothy predators were cats but belonged to a different subfamily–Machairodontinae–that’s now extinct.
There may even be a third cat-family group–extinct sabertooths called barbourofelids–but paleontologists aren’t sure about that because these animals lived so long ago.
Details: Saberteeth occur over and over again in the fossil record. Believe it or not, there even once was a house-cat-sized sabertooth!
It wasn’t a true cat, though. Called Machaeroides eothen, this pint-sized sabertooth belonged to the order Creodonta and lived in what is now Wyoming. It went extinct long before the Miocene ancestors of the modern cat family appeared.
Not that there was any shortage of sabertooths back in the Miocene. This adaptation has evolved over and over again down through geologic time, and paleontologists would really like to understand why.
Among the apex predators that terrorized the subtropical forests of Eurasia and North America were huge barbourofelids.
Some of these cat-like predators were huge, with extreme saberteeth. Despite appearances, experts disagree whether there was an actual connection between them and the cat family Felidae.
Barbourofelidae might have been a sister-family.
Felidae’s first known members–Proailurus, and then the Pseudaelurus group–were small in comparison, with the largest only being about the size of a small puma.
These European natives were built a lot like modern cats and most of them had what we would call “normal” teeth, i.e., no elongated upper canines.
The ancestor of modern cats may have been Styriofelis lorteti–a member of the Pseudaelurus complex of ancient cats.
Another member of that group, Pseudaelurus quadridentatus had slightly unusual fangs that could have evolved into saberteeth. However, the fossil record just isn’t complete enough to show exactly how sabertoothed cats evolved.
It might not be coincidence that the barbourofelid extinction happened soon after sabercats did arrive on the scene, though.
The interplay of genes and natural selection is a very complex process. There was room for the rise, fall, and rise again of both sabercat and modern cat species, side by side, for millions of years, even after the planet went into its present cycle of ice ages separated by warm spells like the one we’re in now.
Then, after almost 10 million years of success, the last sabertoothed cats vanished some 11,000 years ago, along with many other large animals.
Both climate change and human activities have been implicated in these end-Pleistocene extinctions, but one group of paleontologists (Werdelin and others, in the source list at chapter’s end) thinks that lions may have had something to do with the sabercat extinctions.
Lions can adapt to many different environments and eat almost anything–perhaps competition from them was the last straw for sabercats during those hard times.
Both branches of the cat family continue to fascinate researchers.
And the general public has not forgotten sabercats, either!
As more discoveries are made, this picture of how cats evolved will probably change.
Come what may, we will always have Fluffy–the little tiger who shares our home, and our heart.
Agustí, J. 2007. The biotic environments of the late Miocene hominids, in Handbook of Paleoanthropology. Vol. 2: Primate Evolution and Human Origins, eds. Henke W. and Tattersall I., 979-1009. Springer: Berlin.
Agustí, J., and Antón, M. 2002. Mammoths, sabertooths, and hominids: 65 million years of mammalian evolution in Europe. New York and Chichester: Columbia University Press.
Antón, M. 2013. Sabertooth. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Fossilworks (Paleontology Database). n. d. Machaeroides eothen Matthew 1909 (creodont). http://fossilworks.org/bridge.pl?a=taxonInfo&taxon_no=47837 Last accessed November 28, 2018.
Johnson, W. E.; Eizirik, E.; Pecon-Slattery, J.; Murphy, W. J.; and others. 2006. The Late Miocene Radiation of Modern Felidae: A Genetic Assessment. Science, 311: 73-77.
O’Brien, S. J., and Johnson, W. E. 2007. The evolution of cats. Scientific American, 297(1): 68-75.
Salesa, M. J., Antón, M., Morales, J., and Peigné, S. 2011. Functional anatomy of the postcranial skeleton of Styriofelis lorteti (Carnivora, Felidae, Felinae) from the Middle Miocene (MN 6) locality of Sansan (Gers, France). Estudios Geológicos, 67(2): 223-243.
Turner, A., and Antón, M. 1997. The Big Cats and Their Fossil Relatives: An Illustrated Guide to Their Evolution and Natural History. New York: Columbia University Press.
Werdelin, L., and Turner, A. 1996. Turnover in the guild of larger carnivores in Eurasia across the Miocene-Pliocene boundary. Acta Zoologica Cracoviensia, 39(1): 585-592.
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, eds. 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 Linnaean Society, 83: 47-63.
Featured image: The People Speak!, CC BY 2.0