Or to put it another way: Are meerkats related to cats?
Yes, despite appearances. In fact, there is a whole group of cat-like (feliform) carnivorans out there, and very few of them actually look feline.
Taxonomists base the resemblance on anatomic details, like the auditory bullae (jargon alert), that most of us have never heard of.
Now, instead of getting into lab coats and deploying the microscopes and rulers, let’s just kick back and enjoy some videos about these various groups.
First, one of the living members of the Family Felidae that we met last week:
Next, this narrator — paleoartist Mauricio Antón — gives us a look at galloping cats, including both sides of Felidae: the living subfamilies of Pantherinae (big cats) and Felinae (all the rest) and the extinct subfamily Machairodontinae: the sabercats.
Here’s a little more about saberteeth. (Of note, there may have been a whole “sabertooth complex” of features, not just the long canines.)
We still seem to be a long way from meerkats, don’t we?
But note that all these videos date the cat family back to Miocene times, some 20 million years or so.
That’s incredibly old, but the caniform-feliform split may have happened in Eocene times, around 40 million years ago, as shown in this video about hyenas — feliforms! and serious competition for cats down through time:
And a possible great-granddaddy of Order Carnivora may have been hopping around in the bushes during the late Cretaceous, when dinosaurs still ruled!
Literally hopping, if this reconstruction of Cimolestes is correct.
What I’m trying to say is that cats are doubly precious when you consider how many other evolutionary paths their ancestors could have followed, including but not limited to living feliforms today (cue the meerkats):
Lagniappe: How ’bout some dancing lions?
Featured image: Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0.