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For other uses, see Felidae (disambiguation).
"Felid" redirects here. For the village in Iran, see Felid, Iran.
Temporal range:
Oligocene - Present, 25–0 Ma
The Felidae.jpg
Clockwise from top left: tiger (Panthera tigris), Canadian lynx (Lynx canadensis), cougar (Puma concolor), cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus), wildcat (Felis silvestris), serval (Leptailurus serval), caracal (Caracal caracal) and ocelot (Leopardus pardalis).
Scientific classification e
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Suborder: Feliformia
Family: Felidae
Fischer von Waldheim, 1817
Type genus
Linnaeus, 1758


Felidae range.png
Felidae ranges

Felidae is the family of cats. A member of this family is also called a felid.[3][4][5][6]

Living cats belong to the subfamilies:

Cats are obligate carnivores; they must consume meat to survive. Therefore, they are sometimes referred to as hypercarnivores because of the much higher proportion of protein they require in their diet, much more than most other mammals. Of the 13 terrestrial families in the order Carnivora, they are the strictest carnivores.[8]

The first cats emerged during the Oligocene, about 25 million years ago. In prehistoric times, a third subfamily, the Machairodontinae, included the "saber-toothed cats", such as the Smilodon. Other superficially cat-like mammals, such as the metatherians Thylacosmilus and Thylacoleo, or the Nimravidae, are not included in Felidae despite superficial similarities.[citation needed]


The 41 known cat species in the world today are all descended from the same ancestor.[1] Cats originated in Asia and spread across continents by crossing land bridges. Testing of mitochondrial and nuclear DNA revealed that the 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 the Isthmus of Panama, with the Panthera genus being the oldest and the Felis genus being the youngest. About 60% of the modern cat species are estimated to have developed within the last million years.[9]

Felidae's closest relatives are thought to be the Asiatic linsangs.[10] Together with the Viverridae, hyenas, mongooses, and Madagascar carnivores, they form the suborder Feliformia.[11]

Most cat species share a genetic anomaly that prevents them from tasting sweetness.[12]

Most cat species have a haploid number of 18 or 19. New World cats (those in Central and South America) have a haploid number of 18, possibly due to the combination of two smaller chromosomes into a larger one.[13] Prior to this discovery, biologists had been largely unable to establish a family tree of cats from fossil records because the fossils of different cat species all look very much alike, differing primarily in size.[citation needed]

Domestic cats may either have a long or short tail. At one point, biologists had to consider whether the short tail also found in the lynx was the ancestral or derived trait. Without looking at the fossil record, researchers could look at outgroups and their character state. It turns out that all animals belonging to Felidae’s sister taxa Viverridae have long tails. Thus, the long tails of domestic cats, lions, and pumas represent the ancestral character state. Although simplified, this method applies to the evolution of domestic cats.[11]

Felis silvestris catus (domestic cat) and F. silvestris silvestris (European wildcat) are sister subspecies. F. silvestris lybica (African wildcat) and F. bieti (Chinese mountain cat) are sister species. These two groups have a common ancestor. This common ancestor has a common ancestor with F. margarita (sand cat). Similarly, F. nigripes (black-footed cat) share a common ancestor with the species mentioned above. F. chaus (jungle cat) share a common ancestor with all of the species mentioned above.[14]

Many domestic cats display a rosette pattern on their coats. This character state, however, is not related to the rosettes found on big cats. Domestic cats and big cats underwent convergent evolution for this trait. The most common ancestor to all cats had a flecked coat. Lynxes display this character state. The jaguarundi lost this character state secondarily. The most common recent ancestor of snow leopards, tigers, jaguars, lions, and leopards developed a coat with rosette patterns from the flecked patterns. Tigers and lions, however, do not display rosettes as adults. They both have lost this ancestral character state over time. Adult tigers actually display elongated rosettes that now appear as stripes. Adult lions seem to lack any distinctive markings altogether. Both juvenile tigers and lions, however, display partial rosettes. This ancestral character state appears only during these early stages. Thus, the rosette patterns found on snow leopards, jaguars, and leopards all have a common origin.[15]

Carnivores compete against each other. There is fossil evidence that felids have been more successful than canids in North America.[16][17]


Cats are obligate carnivores, requiring a diet of meat and organs to survive. Aside from the lion, wild felids are generally solitary; feral domestic cats do, however, form colonies. Cheetahs are also known to live and hunt in groups. Felids are generally secretive animals, often nocturnal, and live in relatively inaccessible habitats. Around three-quarters of cat species live in forested terrain, and they are generally agile climbers. However, felids may be found in almost any environment, with some species being native to mountainous terrain or deserts.[citation needed]

Wild felids are native to every continent except Australasia and Antarctica.[citation needed]

Physical appearance[edit]

Skull of the machairodontine Smilodon (reconstruction)
Lion skull

Felids tend to have lithe and flexible bodies with muscular limbs. In the great majority of species, the tail is between a third and a half the length of the body, although with some exceptions (for example, the bobcat and margay). The limbs are digitigrade with soft toe pads and protractible claws. Compared with most other mammals, the head is highly domed with a short muzzle. The skull possesses wide zygomatic arches and a large sagittal crest, both of which allow for the attachment of strong jaw muscles.[18]

The various species of felids vary greatly in size. One of the smallest is the black-footed cat, measuring 35 to 40 cm (14 to 16 in) long, while the largest in the wild is the tiger, which can grow up to 350 cm (11.5 ft) in length[19] and weigh 300 kilograms (660 lb).[citation needed]

Felid fur takes many different forms, being much thicker in those species living in cold environments, such as the snow leopard. The color of felids is also highly variable—although brown to golden fur is common in most species—usually marked with distinctive spots, stripes, or rosettes. The only felids to lack significant markings are the lion, puma, caracal, and jaguarundi. Many species exhibit melanism, in which some individuals have an all-black coat.[18]

The tongue of felids is covered with horny papillae, which rasp meat from prey and aid in grooming.

All felids have protractible claws. In other words, they have the ability to protract their claws from a retracted, at-rest position. However, in a few species, such as the cheetah, the claws remain visible even when at rest (retracted). The claws are retracted when the animal is relaxed and protracted when they are in use. They are attached to the terminal bone of the toe with a tough ligament; when the animal contracts muscles in the toe to straighten it, the ligament forces the claw outwards.[18] Cats have five toes on their forefeet and four on their hindfeet, reflecting their reliance on gripping and holding down their prey with their claws.[citation needed] In the Felidae, the baculum is shorter than in the Canidae.[20]


Comparative illustration of cats of the genus Panthera and Felis by N. N. Kondakov
Feeding postures of Panthera and Felis, as illustrated by N. N. Kondakov

Felids have relatively large eyes, situated to provide binocular vision. Their night vision is especially good due to the presence of a tapetum lucidum, which reflects light back inside the eyeball, and gives felid eyes their distinctive shine. As a result, the eyes of felids are about six times more light sensitive than those of humans, and many species are at least partially nocturnal. The retina of felids also contains a relatively high proportion of rod cells, adapted for distinguishing moving objects in conditions of dim light, which are complemented by the presence of cone cells for sensing color during the day. However, felids appear to have relatively poor color vision in comparison with humans.[18] This is explained by the fact that felids see moving objects more "colorfully" than still objects, but in an intact environment, are unable to distinguish color tones alone (like turquoise compared to teal, for example).[citation needed]

The external ears of felids are also large, and especially sensitive to high-frequency sounds in the smaller cats. This sensitivity allows them to locate small rodent prey; cats do not apparently produce such sounds.[18]

Felids also have a highly developed sense of smell, although not to the degree seen in canids; this is further supplemented by the presence of a vomeronasal organ in the roof of the mouth, allowing the animal to "taste" the air. The use of this organ is associated with the Flehmen response, in which the upper lip is curled upwards. Most felids are unable to taste sweetness due to a mutated gene in their taste buds. Exceptions include members of the genera Leopardus and Otocolobus.[citation needed]

Felids possess highly sensitive whiskers set deep within the skin, which provide the cat with sensory information about the slightest air movement around it. Whiskers are very helpful to nocturnal hunters.[citation needed]

Most felids are able to land on their feet after a fall, an ability that relies on vision, body flexibility and the sense of balance acting together.[citation needed]


Felids have a relatively small number of teeth compared with other carnivorans, a feature associated with their short muzzles. With a few exceptions, such as the lynx, they have the dental formula: The canine teeth are large, reaching exceptional size in the extinct saber-tooth species. The upper third premolar and lower molar are adapted as carnassial teeth, suited to tearing and cutting flesh.[18]

Felid jaws can only move vertically, which prevents them from being able to chew efficiently, but makes it easier for their powerful masseter jaw muscles to hold struggling prey.[citation needed]


All felids share a broadly similar set of vocalisations, but with some variation between species. In particular, the pitch of calls varies, with larger species producing deeper sounds; overall, the frequency of felid calls ranges between 50 and 10,000 hertz.[citation needed]

All felids are able to spit, hiss, growl, snarl, and mew. The first four sounds are all used in an aggressive context. The spitting sound is a sudden burst, typically used when making threats, especially towards other species. The hiss is a prolonged, atonal sound used in close range to other members of the species, when the animal is uncertain whether to attack or retreat. Growling is used to indicate a willingness to attack, while the higher-pitched snarl is used when adopting a defensive posture.[citation needed]

The mewing sound may be used either as a close-contact call, typically between a mother and kittens, or as a louder, longer distance call, primarily during the mating season. The acoustic properties of the mew vary somewhat between different felid species; extreme examples include the whistling sound made by cougars and the mew-grunt of lions and tigers.[citation needed]

Most felids seem to be able to purr, vibrating the muscles in their larynx to produce a distinctive buzzing sound. In the wild, purring is used while a mother is caring for kittens. Precisely which species of felids are able to purr is a matter of debate, but the sound has been recorded in most of the smaller species, as well as the cheetah and cougar, and may also be found in the big cats.

Other common felid vocalisations include the gurgle, wah-wah, prusten, and roar. The first two sounds are found only among the Felinae (small cats). Gurgling is a quiet sound used during meetings between friendly individuals, as well as during courtship and when nursing kittens. The wah-wah is a short, deep-sounding call used in close contact, and is not found in all species (it is, for example, absent in the domestic cat).

In contrast, prusten and roaring are found only in big cats. Prusten is a short, soft, snorting sound reported in tigers, jaguars, snow leopards, and clouded leopards; it is used during contact between friendly individuals. The roar is an especially loud call with a distinctive pattern that depends on the species. The ability to roar comes from an elongated and specially adapted larynx and hyoid apparatus.[21] When air passes through the larynx on the way from the lungs, the cartilage walls of the larynx vibrate, producing sound. Only lions, leopards, tigers, and jaguars are truly able to roar, although the loudest mews of snow leopards have a similar, if less structured, sound.[18] Tigers and jaguars have a very snarly roar, while the roar of leopards and lions is much more throaty.[citation needed]

Social and territorial behavior[edit]

Territorial marking[edit]


Traditionally, five subfamilies have been distinguished within the Felidae based on phenotypical features: the Felinae, the Pantherinae, the Acinonychinae (cheetahs), the extinct Machairodontinae, and the extinct Proailurinae.[2]

Genetic classification[edit]

Genetic research has provided a basis for a more concise classification for the living members of the cat family based on genotypical groupings.[1][9][22] Specifically, eight genetic lineages have been identified:[23]

The last four lineages are more related to each other than to any of the first four, so form a clade within the Felinae subfamily of family Felidae.[citation needed]

Extant species[edit]

The following is the complete list of genera within family Felidae, grouped according to the traditional phenotypical classification with the corresponding genotypical lineages indicated. It includes all the currently living species of cats.[1]

Fossil felids[edit]

Possibly the oldest known true felid (Proailurus) lived in the late Oligocene and early Miocene epochs. During the Miocene, it gave way to Pseudaelurus. Pseudaelurus is believed to be the latest common ancestor of the two extant subfamilies and the extinct subfamily, Machairodontinae. This group, better known as the saber-tooth cats, became extinct in the Late Pleistocene era. The group includes the genera Smilodon, Machairodus and Homotherium. The Metailurini were originally classified as a distinct tribe within the Machairodontinae, though they count as members of the Felinae in recent times.[26][27] Most extinct cat-like animals, once regarded as members of the Felidae, later turned out to be members of related, but distinct, families: the "false sabretooths" Nimravidae and Barbourofelidae. As a result, sabretooth "cats" seem to belong to four different lineages. The total number of fossil felids known to science is low compared to other carnivoran families, such as dogs and bears. Felidae radiated quite recently and most of the extant species are relatively young.

Fossil genera[edit]

The American lion was one of the abundant Pleistocene megafauna, a wide variety of very large mammals that went extinct about 10,000 years ago.[28]

The list follows McKenna and Bell's Classification of Mammals for prehistoric genera. Pseudaelurus is included in the Felinae as per McKenna & Bell, despite its basal position in felid evolution.[2] Inconsistent with McKenna and Bell, three additional prehistoric genera, Miracinonyx, Lokontailurus and Xenosmilus, are listed. Sivapanthera is included in the Felinae (not Acinonychinae) and Ischrosmilus is included in the genus Smilodon.

See also[edit]

Cited references[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e Wozencraft, W.C. (2005). "Felidae". In Wilson, D.E.; Reeder, D.M. Mammal Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference (3rd ed.). Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 532–548. ISBN 978-0-8018-8221-0. OCLC 62265494. 
  2. ^ a b c McKenna, M. C.; Bell, S. K. (2000). Classification of Mammals. Columbia University Press. p. 631. ISBN 978-0-231-11013-6. 
  3. ^ Salles, L. O. (1992). Felid phylogenetics: extant taxa and skull morphology (Felidae, Aeluroidea). American Museum Novitates no. 3047.
  4. ^ Hemmer, H. (1978). Evolutionary systematics of living Felidae – present status and current problems. Carnivore 1: 71–79.
  5. ^ a b Johnson, W. E., Dratch, P. A., Martenson, J. S., & O'Brien, S. J. (1996). Resolution of recent radiations within three evolutionary lineages of Felidae using mitochondrial restriction fragment length polymorphism variation. Journal of Mammalian Evolution 3(2): 97–120.
  6. ^ Christiansen, P. (2008). Evolution of skull and mandible shape in cats (Carnivora: Felidae). PLoS One 3(7): e2807.
  7. ^ Wozencraft, W.C. (2005). "Felinae". In Wilson, D.E.; Reeder, D.M. Mammal Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference (3rd ed.). Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 532–545. ISBN 978-0-8018-8221-0. OCLC 62265494. 
  8. ^ Legrand-Defretin, V. (1994). Differences between cats and dogs: a nutritional view. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 53 (01): 15–24.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h Johnson, W. E., Eizirik, E., Pecon-Slattery, J., Murphy, W. J., Antunes, A., Teeling, E., O'Brien, S. J. (2006). "The late miocene radiation of modern Felidae: a genetic assessment". Science 311 (5757): 73–77. doi:10.1126/science.1122277. PMID 16400146. 
  10. ^ Eizirik E., Murphy W. J., Koepfli K. P., Johnson W. E., Dragoo J. W., O'Brien S. J. (2010). "Pattern and timing of the diversification of the mammalian order Carnivora inferred from multiple nuclear gene sequences". Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 56 (1): 49–63. doi:10.1016/j.ympev.2010.01.033. PMID 20138220. 
  11. ^ a b Gaubert, P., Veron, G. (2003). "Exhaustive sample set among Viverridae reveals the sister-group of felids: the linsangs as a case of extreme morphological convergence within Feliformia". Proceedings of the Royal Society B 270 (1532): 2523–30. doi:10.1098/rspb.2003.2521. PMC 1691530. PMID 14667345. 
  12. ^ Li, X.; Li, W., Wang, H., Cao, J., Maehashi, K., Huang, L., Bachmanov, A. A., Reed, D. R., Legrand-Defretin, V., Beauchamp, G. K. and J. G. Brand (2005). "Pseudogenization of a Sweet-Receptor Gene Accounts for Cats' Indifference toward Sugar". Public Library of Science 1 (1): 27–35. doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.0010003. PMC 1183522. PMID 16103917. Retrieved 2008-06-30. 
  13. ^ Vella, C.; Shelton, L. M., McGonagle, J. J., & Stanglein, T. W. (2002). Robinson's Genetics for Cat Breeders and Veterinarians, 4th ed. Oxford: Butterworh-Heinemann Ltd. ISBN 0-7506-4069-3. 
  14. ^ Yamaguchi,, N.; Driscoll, C. A., Kitchener, A. C., Ward, J. M., Macdonald, D. W. (2004). "Craniological differentiation between European wildcats (Felis silvestris silvestris), African wildcats (F. s. lybica) and Asian wildcats (F. s. ornata): implications for their evolution and conservation". Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 83 (1): 47–63. doi:10.1111/j.1095-8312.2004.00372.x. Retrieved 26 April 2015. 
  15. ^ Werdelin, L.; Olsson, L. (2008). "How the leopard got its spots: a phylogenetic view of the evolution of felid coat patterns". Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 62 (3): 383–400. doi:10.1111/j.1095-8312.1997.tb01632.x. Retrieved 26 April 2015. 
  16. ^ http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/nature/cats-vs-dogs-scientists-confirm-that-felines-are-better-from-an-evolutionary-perspective-10454590.html "Cats vs dogs: Scientists confirm that felines are better... from an evolutionary perspective" The Independent, 14 August 2015
  17. ^ http://www.gu.se/english/about_the_university/news-calendar/News_detail//competition-from-the-ancestors-of-cats-drove-the-extinction-of-many-species-of-ancient-dogs.cid1313224 "Competition from the ancestors of cats drove the extinction of many species of ancient dogs" University of Gothenburg, 14 July 2015
  18. ^ a b c d e f g Sunquist, M.; Sunquist, F. (2002). Wild cats of the World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 5–16. ISBN 0-226-77999-8. 
  19. ^ Mazak, V. (2004). Der Tiger. Nachdruck der 3. Auflage von 1983. Westarp Wissenschaften Hohenwarsleben. ISBN 3-89432-759-6
  20. ^ Ewer, R. F. (1973). The Carnivores. Cornell University Press. ISBN 978-0-8014-8493-3. Retrieved 27 January 2013. 
  21. ^ Weissengruber, G. E.; Forstenpointner, G.; Peters, G.; Kübber-Heiss, A.; Fitch, W.T. (2002). "Hyoid apparatus and pharynx in the lion (Panthera leo), jaguar (Panthera onca), tiger (Panthera tigris), cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) and the domestic cat (Felis silvestris f. catus)". Journal of Anatomy (Anatomical Society of Great Britain and Ireland) 201 (3): 195–209. doi:10.1046/j.1469-7580.2002.00088.x. PMC 1570911. PMID 12363272. 
  22. ^ O'Brien, S. J., Johnson, W. E. (2005). "Big cat genomics". Annual Review of Genomics and Human Genetics 6: 407–429. doi:10.1146/annurev.genom.6.080604.162151. PMID 16124868. 
  23. ^ Johnson, WE; O'Brien, SJ (1997). "Phylogenetic reconstruction of the Felidae using 16S rRNA and NADH-5 mitochondrial genes". Journal of molecular evolution. 44 Suppl 1: S98–116. doi:10.1007/PL00000060. PMID 9071018. 
  24. ^ Jackson, R., Mallon, D., McCarthy, T., Chundaway, R.A. & Habib, B. (2008). "Panthera uncia". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2015.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved April 27, 2015. 
  25. ^ Bahaa-el-din, L., Mills, D., Hunter, L. & Henschel, P. (2015). "Caracal aurata". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2015.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. 
  26. ^ van den Hoek Ostende, L. W.; M. Morlo; D. Nagel (2006). "Fossils explained 52 Majestic killers: the sabre-toothed cats". Geology Today 22 (4): 150–157. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2451.2006.00572.x. Retrieved 2008-06-30. 
  27. ^ Turner, A. (1997). The Big Cats and their fossil relatives. New York: Columbia University Press. p. 60. ISBN 978-0-231-10228-5. 
  28. ^ Leidy, J. (1853). Description of an extinct species of American lion: Felis atrox. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society: 319–321.

General references[edit]

External links[edit]