Where Do House Cats Fit Into the Cat Family?

There’s an old saying that house cats give us an opportunity to safely caress the tiger in our living room.

And it’s true. In fact, apart from scale, all cats are very much alike under the skin.

So, just where does Fluffy fit into this family?

Through wildcats. These Old World natives have left few fossils, but paleontologists believe that they first appeared about 450,000 years ago in Europe.

The Asian (bottom) and African (top left) steppe wildcats have shorter hair, longer legs, and a much sleeker build than the European wildcat (top right). (Sources: Asian wildcat, by Raja Bandi, CC BY-SA 4.0; African wildcat, by Leon Emanuel, CC BY-SA 4.0; and European wildcat, by Aconcagua (talk), CC BY-SA 3.0)

Fluffy’s group — the steppe wildcats — branched off from European wildcats 20,000 years ago and headed south, into Africa. Another group headed east, into Asia.

Along the way, all steppe wildcats had to contend with cat and sabercat lines that were millions of years old.

Yes, wildcats and the rest of the domestic cat lineage sit on the youngest branch on the cat family tree. The oldest fossils of this Felis group are “only” a few million years old. (Werdelin et al.)

That sounds incredibly ancient, but a combination of fossil records and molecular genetic studies show that all the other lineages are even older.

What are these lineages?

The cat family tree

Think of a lineage as a group of cats that have a common ancestor.

This is a very handy way to look at any group of living beings because it reflects how those groups actually evolved.

Weirdo. (Image: Ulrike, CC BY-ND 2.0)

Taxonomists like Linnaeus and Cuvier used to go by appearance.

This was useful up to a point, but it couldn’t explain oddities like the cheetah, which was usually acknowledged as unique.

The arrival of genetics and molecular biology helped scientists get a more accurate picture of feline relationships. This more or less confirmed many earlier findings, as well as settling some longstanding questions.

Experts proved, for example, that cheetahs share a common ancestor with pumas and jaguarundis, despite living on a different continent today.

Clouded leopards, another unusual group, were found to be big cats!

But, as this video shows, fossils are still necessary to establish dates and show the full evolutionary picture.

Pictures are worth a thousand words. This needs a few notes, though:

“Don’t overlook me!”–Clouded leopard. (Image: Charles Barilleaux, CC BY 2.0)

  1. The 11-million-year-old date comes from a molecular study by Johnson et al., mentioned below.
  2. The discovery of Panthera blythae is very important, but it’s recent and I’m not sure how broad the consensus on it is.
  3. They should have included clouded leopards in the Panthera lineage, even if these have a different genus name (Neofelis). They share a common ancestor with other big cats and probably with P. blythae, too. Also, clouded leopards may be the oldest big cats and, therefore, the oldest members of family Felidae.

According to one widely accepted study (Johnson et al. 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 South American small cats appeared 8 Ma.
  • Proto-lynxes arrived 7.2 Ma.
  • The line of cougars, jaguarundis, and cheetahs 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 only go back some 10,000 years. Nevertheless, the scientists call this the domestic cat lineage.

That’s just one version of how cats evolved. If you are curious enough to dig through the scientific literature, you will find others.

The history of cats is constantly being refined as more field information comes in and as new insights occur.

What came before the modern cat family?

It was sabertoothed cats, right?

Well, not really.

Besides the teeth, sabercats like Smilodon fatalis were built differently from modern cats. (Image; Sergiodlarosa via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)

People used to think so until sabercat DNA from Patagonia and the Yukon was analyzed several years ago.

This showed that, while Smilodon & Company were cats, they belonged to a different, now extinct, subfamily: the Machairodontinae, or “Knife Tooths.”

Today’s cats, formally known as the subfamily Felinae, are unusual in that they don’t have saberteeth, which have occurred again and again in cats and cat-like predators over the last 35 million years.

Both branches of the cat family continue to fascinate researchers.

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.

Featured image: Cranach/Shutterstock


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.

Tseng Z. J.; Wang, X.; Slater, G. J.; Takeuchi, G. T.; and others. 2013. Himalayan fossils of the oldest known pantherine establish ancient origin of big cats. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. 281: 132686. http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/281/1774/20132686

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.

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