The Felidae family contains 38 species of wild cat and one additional species: the much-loved domesticated cat. The classification of wild cats is not only an interesting topic thanks to their wide variety of physical characteristics but is also one of the easiest stories of evolution to follow in the animal kingdom. The oldest split between all remaining extant species of cat occurred more than 10 million years ago when Pantherinae—containing the “Big 5” cats—split from Felinae—containing the rest of the felids. The Felinae subfamily then continued to diverge until around 1-3 million years ago, producing, among others, the Caracal, Ocelot, Lynx, Puma & Domestic Cat lineages. In this guide, we’ll explore each split in the Felidae family and the lineages and species these evolutionary divergences produced.
- Panthera Lineage (inc. The Big Five: Lions, Tigers & Jaguars)
- Bay Cat Lineage (inc. Asian Golden Cat & Marbled Cat)
- Caracal Lineage (inc. African Golden Cat & Serval)
- Ocelot Lineage (inc. Oncilla & Margay)
- Lynx Lineage (inc. Eurasian Lynx & Bobcat)
- Puma Lineage (inc. Cougar & Cheetah)
- Leopard Cat Lineage (inc. Pallas’s Cat & Leopard Cat)
- Domestic Cat Lineage (inc. Chinese Mountain Cat & European Wildcat)
Panthera Lineage > Panthera & Neofelis Genera > 7 Species
One upon a time, the earth was roamed by gigantic sabre-tooth tigers. Unfortunately, the last of this no-doubt spectacular subfamily of cats were driven to extinction around 10,000 years ago leaving behind the remaining extant members of the cat family with the Panthera Lineage—technically known as Pantherinae—containing the largest and most terrifying cats! This subfamily contains two genera: Panthera and Neofelis. Panthera is by far the most famous of all feline genera, holding the “big 5”: tigers, lions, jaguars, leopards and the elusive snow leopard. Neofelis contains two species, both of which are variations of the clouded leopard and are significantly smaller than their distant Pantherinian cousins.
The tiger is the largest cat on the planet, measuring up to 3.9m/13ft in length and weighing up to 300kg/660lbs. Yikes! This species is split into 6 subspecies including the Bengal, Malayan and Siberian tiger with an additional 3 subspecies driven to extinction including the Javan and Caspian tiger. They are unique in their appearance, exhibiting an orange coat with black stripes & a white underbelly, tail and facial highlights.
Both white and black tigers have been known to occur from pseudo-melanism and albinism respectively (we’ll talk more about melanism later). They are found mainly in the forests of south and east Asia, with a small population—the aforementioned Siberian tiger—inhabiting the mountain ranges of far-eastern Russia and northern China. Unfortunately, tigers are currently endangered due to poaching and habitat destruction but a healthy population does reside in India where they are protected.
- Defining characteristics – Massive! The only cat with bright orange fur
- Max size – 3.9m/13ft in length (including tail) and 300kg/660lbs
- Average Lifespan in the wild – 8-10 years
- Activity pattern – Active in the day but usually hunts by night
- Social behaviour – Solitary with a large territorial range
- Habitat – Many different kinds of forest & grassland
- Range – South, east and southeast Asia & far eastern Russia/China
- Prey – Deer, wild cattle & pigs (will eat other cats and bears too)
- Threats/Predators – Crocodiles, humans & occasionally bears
- Conservation status – Endangered (3000 – 4000 remain)
The smallest of the Panthera genus, it makes sense to assume that snow leopards diverged from regular leopards to create a super snow-specializing species! But recent studies have shown that they diverged from tigers and that lions are actually more closely related to leopards. These famously elusive creatures are found on the Tibetan Plateau—the highest mountain range on earth—and regions further north in Mongolia and Siberia.
Snow leopards vary the altitude at which they live depending on the season, retreating to higher elevations in the summer where the temperature remains cool. Their thick white/grey black-spotted fur helps keep them warm in their snowy habitat and provides much-needed camouflage when hunting. There are currently no known subspecies of the snow leopard presumably because of its limited range.
Snow Leopard Facts
- Defining characteristics – Thick soft white/grey/black coat
- Max size – 2.1m/7ft in length (including tail) and 75kg/165lbs
- Activity pattern – Active mostly during the morning & evening
- Social behaviour – Solitary but will hunt as a mating pair
- Habitat – High-altitude mountainous regions
- Range – The mountain ranges of Central Asia
- Prey – Mountain sheep, deer, goats & smaller mammals such as marmots
- Threats/Predators – Humans & occasionally wolves
- Conservation status – Vulnerable (2,500 – 10,000 remain)
Lions once roamed the forests of southern Europe and the Middle East but are now restricted to sub-Saharan Africa and a very small population in India. Unlike other cats who live a solitary existence, lions are pack animals and congregate in prides, which is advantageous for taking down larger prey. Lions also have a unique appearance being the only cat to sport a mane; Charles Darwin postulated that the mane of a male lion developed through natural selection as a means of protection while fighting other males as well as an intimidation tactic.
The mane of a male lion has also been shown to be a factor for females when choosing a mate with darker and thicker manes being the most popular hairstyle. Being a plain yellowish-brown colour, the lion’s coat is the least decorated of all the big cats, however, they do have a fancy black tuft on the end of their tail which no other feline has! The white lion is a rare colour variation caused by a genetic condition called leucism, which results in a loss of pigmentation.
- Defining characteristics – A tuft at the end of their tail and males have a mane
- Max size – 3m/12ft (including tail) & 250kg/550lbs
- Average Lifespan in the wild – 15 years
- Activity pattern – Spend up to 20 hours a day relaxing! Most active at night/dawn
- Social behaviour – The most social of all cats, hang out in prides of up to 30 lions
- Habitat – Grasslands & savannas
- Range – Sub-Saharan Africa & a small population in India
- Prey – Wildebeest, zebra, buffalo, deer (pretty much anything!)
- Threats/Predators – Humans, crocs, hyenas (some herd animals for self-preservation)
- Conservation status – Vulnerable (roughly 20,000 left)
In Africa, Leopards occupy a similar territory to lions but they are also found throughout much of Asia as well. Male leopards can weigh up to 90kg/200lbs and although they are significantly smaller than both lions and tigers, they are famously agile and can hunt while leaping from tree to tree (which, let’s face it, is even more terrifying!). The pattern of their fur is similar to that of a jaguar but their black rosettes tend to be smaller and less intricate.
One of the most famous colour variations is the black panther, which is not a separate species; excessive production of Melanin causes the black pigmentation of fur and although there are black panthers in Africa the most common occurrence of this variant is found on the Malay Peninsula. There are 27 subspecies of leopard making it one of the most geographically and visually varied felines; some subspecies such as the Indian leopard are noticeably more orange than their African counterparts.
- Defining characteristics – Black rosettes, generally with no inner spots
- Max size – 3m/12ft (including tail) & 90kg/200lbs
- Average Lifespan in the wild – 10-12 years
- Activity pattern – Hunts at night but can vary between season, habitat and prey
- Social behaviour – Solitary and territorial but ranges can overlap
- Habitat – Varied; forest, savannah, grassland, woodland
- Range – Sub-saharan Africa & central/east Asia
- Prey – Antelope, deer, warthogs (small to medium-sized mammals)
- Threats/Predators – Larger cats, hyenas, wolves, bears & humans
- Conservation status – Vulnerable (unknown but likely less than 100,000)
Jaguars are commonly mistaken for Leopards due to their visually similar fur pattern, however, there are several distinct differences between the two species. Unlike the African/Asian dwelling Leopard, Jaguars are found throughout Central and South America and these aquatically inclined felines can be up to twice the size—males can weigh just under 160kg/350lbs!
Their fur pattern also differs slightly with spots inside each black rosette and they can also be subject to Melanism, producing entirely back Jaguars—this also leads to the confusion between species. They have adapted to living in the wet rainforests and wetlands of South America including and especially the Amazon rainforest. This has made Jaguars excellent swimmers; they consume more reptiles than any other cat, using their powerful bite and large canines to prey on turtles and caiman. Jaguars are a monotypic species meaning that there are no currently defined subspecies.
- Defining characteristics – Spots on the inside of their rosettes (some appear grumpy!)
- Max size – 2.7m/9ft (including tail) & 160kg/350lbs
- Average Lifespan in the wild – 11-12 years
- Activity pattern – Hunt mainly at night but also active during the day
- Social behaviour – Solitary and territorial
- Habitat – All kinds of forests and wetlands/grasslands
- Range – Central and South America
- Prey – Deer, capybara, birds, fish, turtles, caiman & livestock
- Threats/Predators – Humans (pretty much just us, sadly)
- Conservation status – Near Threatened (64,000 remain)
The first of two species contained in the Neofelis genus, the clouded leopard is significantly smaller—males can weigh up to around 23kg/50lbs—and are found throughout much of east and southeast Asia. Their fur pattern reminds me a little bit of a python, with its dark brown-green fur camouflaged with a large black-spotted pattern. Melanism can occur in clouded leopards although it is rare. They are solitary animals who are arboreal—living mostly in the trees—and hunt at night due to overlapping ranges with tigers and leopards.
Clouded Leopard Facts
- Defining characteristics – Unique large black markings
- Max size – 2m/6ft (including tail) & 23kg/50lbs
- Average Lifespan in the wild – 11 years
- Activity pattern – Nocturnal & arboreal
- Social behaviour – Solitary
- Habitat – Woodlands & forests
- Range – East and Southeast Asia
- Prey – Monkeys, deer, squirrels, birds
- Threats/Predators – Larger cats & humans
- Conservation Status – Vulnerable (less and 10,000 remain)
Sunda Clouded Leopard
This distinct species of cat diverged from the clouded leopard around 1-2 million years ago and is found exclusively on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. Visually it is very similar to the clouded leopard except for a slightly darker fur. One of the largest recorded populations of the Sunda clouded leopard is in Sabah—a northern state of Borneo—which is also home to orangutans, the Asiatic black bear and the bay cat.
Sunda Clouded Leopard Facts
- Defining characteristics – Slightly darker and larger than the regular clouded leopard
- Max size – 2m/6ft (including tail) & 30kg/66lbs
- Activity pattern – Nocturnal & arboreal
- Social behaviour – Solitary
- Habitat – Primarily forests
- Range – Borneo & Sumatra
- Prey – Deer, palm civet, monkeys, squirrels, birds
- Threats/Predators – Larger cats & humans
- Conservation Status – Vulnerable
More lineages & species coming soon!