Book Preview: Fact #35: Cats Are Placental Mammals

A few mammals lay eggs, believe it or not (duck-billed platypus); others carry their young around in pouches (marsupials like the kangaroo)

But most of us, including cats, keep our unborn young inside, connected to Mom’s bloodstream through temporary tissue, called a placenta, until they’re ready to meet the world.

Placental mammals are dominant everywhere today except Australia–and it’s all because of the K/T (K/Pg) extinction.


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Book Preview: Fact #18. The cat-dog split goes almost all the way back to the K/T (K/Pg) extinction.

Cats and dogs are with us today; that is, they’re domesticated animal members of the human family.

But they are also predators by nature, just like their wild relatives, which include but aren’t limited to lions, tigers, wolves, and bears.

These particular members of the order Carnivora all have claws, fangs, and powerful hunting instincts, but a few others get by without such tools. This is why biologists trying to classify animals look for a set of specialized meat-slicing teeth (called carnassials) that all carnivorans have.

That’s just step #1. The boffins then must file each of the world’s 280-plus carnivoran species (and over 350 fossil groups) into one of Carnivora’s two natural suborders: feliform and caniform.

“Form” here doesn’t refer to the animal’s outward appearance. It involves some dental features as well as certain cranial structures around the ear and skull base that only a zoologist or paleontologist could love.

These anatomical details are all one way in cats and other feliforms and all another way in caniforms, including dogs.

Scientists don’t understand why such a difference exists. But they do know that it has been around for more than 60 million years.

Do cats and dogs go back to the K/T extinction?

Short answer: No, but Carnivora probably does (its origin story isn’t completely known yet). However, while early small, weasel-like carnivorans already had some feliform/caniform distinctions, they had to play second-fiddle to a group of apex predators called creodonts for tens of millions of years.

Details: Today, Feliformia includes hyenas, oddly enough, as well as civets, meerkats and other mongooses, Asiatic linsangs, and a few other groups in addition to the cat family Felidae.

A young Asiatic linsang:

Caniforms other than dogs include, but aren’t limited to, bears, raccoons, skunks, weasels, foxes, otters, badgers, and (believe it or not) seals and walruses.

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Book Preview: A group of small African and Eurasian cats shares the scientific name Felis with house cats.

Am making good progress on the final draft of “50 Facts About Domestic Cats (And Where They Come From).” This is Fact #14. Thanks for your interest and patience!

When Linnaeus set out to classify all life on Earth back in the late 18th century–you have to admire the man’s “can-do” attitude–he named the whole cat family Felis after its most popular member, the domestic cat.

He was Swedish but wrote in Latin–a language that scientists still use for what’s now called Linnaean classification. This system includes a genus name like Felis followed by a species name, say, leo for lions.

Down through the centuries, zoologists have broken down that very broad Felis category as they learned more about the various cats and how each group evolved. There are still some controversies, but almost everyone agrees on these genus names:

  • Felis
  • Lynx
  • Acinonyx (cheetah)
  • Neofelis (clouded leopards)
  • Panthera (the big cats). Lions are now Panthera leo

At the time of writing, there are at least nine other cat groups, depending on which authority you check. The house cat is well settled into Felis and it has four other adorable (but very wild) little companions.

Why “Felis”? Why not “cattus”?

Short answer: Actually, ancient Romans used both words. Perhaps Linnaeus went with “Felis” because another great scholar with a can-do attitude–Pliny the Elder–used it in his late-first-century master work The Natural History.

Details: There will always be mysteries about the house cat. One such puzzle is where cats went right after they left Egypt.

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Guest Video: The Scottish Wildcat

Yes, a wildcat can be Scottish.

At least on my equipment, the perspective seems off on this video, but the information is so complete and well presented, based on what I’ve learned about this cat while working on the books, that I’m sharing it anyway.

PS, June 16, 2018: I have mixed feelings about the Scottish wildcat issue, but I am not expressing them here because they stem from reasons that are too complex to get into in just a thousand words or so. It must wait until I have been able to explain the basics of it in the upcoming ebook on the domestic cat, and its sequel on the modern cat family.

As anyone acquainted with a domestic cat might expect, even zoologists find Felis silvestris hard to deal with. One of the book chapters will mention this by focusing on the domestic cat’s scientific name: no one can agree on what it should be.

Wildcats are in the Felis silvestris group, but the scientific name for house cats is highly controversial–some say that it should be Felis silvestris catus, while others rightly point out that this is going to mess up a lot of environmental legislation meant to protect wildcats and therefore it should be Felis catus. But wait! say members of the first group. It is a wildcat descendant . . . and round and round the debate goes.

The Highland Tiger group is on the F. catus end of the opinion spectrum, but this video is a good introduction to the issue. My main concern, from this and from some scientific papers I have read, is two-fold:

  1. Hybridization is common in the cat family, so why should we draw the line between two close species now?
  2. How are they are going to handle feral cats? It is reassuring that many laypeople in the UK are aware of the feral cat issue and, from the looks of things, will not tolerate euthanasia–a too-easy out.

When first scheduling this guest video last week, I didn’t realize a note would be necessary, but on rewatching the thing today, I do want to make this addendum. Online resources on the Scottish wildcat issue generally are very polarized. I hope to add some neutral ground to the debate in the book chapter covering this.

Thank you for your interest!

Featured image: Peter Trimming, CC BY 2.0