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:
- 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.