Lions, tigers, cats and others are members of the Felidae (feline)
family. They are the most strictly carnivorous of the nine families
in the order Carnivora. The first felids emerged during the Eocene,
about 40 million years ago. The most familiar feline is the domestic
cat or house cat (subspecies Felis silvestris catus), which first
became associated with humans between 7000 and 4000 years ago. Its
wild relatives still live in Africa and western Asia, although habitat
destruction has restricted their range.
Other well-known members of the feline family include big cats
such as the lion, tiger, leopard, jaguar, and cheetah (which appears
to be descended from the small cats), and other wild cats such as
the lynx, puma, caracal, and bobcat. All felines, the small domestic
cat included, are superpredators capable of destroying almost any
creature smaller than themselves.
Some lesser known members of the feline family include hybrids
bred in captivity such as the liger, and the tigon. The liger remains
as the largest cat in the feline family, even surpassing the size
of the tiger (it should be noted, however, that the tiger remains
the largest feline found in nature).
There are 37 known species of felines in the world today that all
descended from a common ancestor c. 10.8 million years ago. This
species originated in Asia and spread across continents by crossing
land bridges. As reported in the journal Science, testing of mitochondrial
and nuclear DNA by Warren Johnson and Stephen O'Brien of the U.S.
National Cancer Institute demonstrated that ancient cats evolved
into eight main lineages that diverged in the course of at least
10 migrations (in both directions) from continent to continent via
the Bering land bridge and Isthmus of Panama. The Panthera species
are the oldest and the Felis species are the youngest. They estimated
that 60 percent of the modern species of cats developed within the
last million years.
Prior to this discovery, biologists had been largely unable to
establish a family tree of cats from the fossil record because the
fossils of different cat species all look very much alike, differing
primarily in size.
The felines' closest relatives are thought to be the civets, hyenas,
and mongooses. All feline species share a genetic anomaly that prevents
them from tasting sweetness.
All text is available under the terms
of the GNU Free Documentation License