Cats

Scientific name: Felidae

This caracal is one of about 41 species of cats alive today.
This caracal is one of about 41 species of cats alive today. Photo © Martin Harvey / Getty Images.

Cats (Felidae) are a diverse group of carnivores that includes domestic cats, lions, tigers, ocelots, jaguars, caracals, leopards, mountain lions, lynx and many other groups of cats. Cats are graceful, agile predators that have acute eyesight, muscular bodies and a sharp set of teeth.

Cats are superb hunters. Some felids can take down prey that are much larger than themselves, providing evidence of their well-honed skills as predators.

Cats hunt using several methods. Some species lie in wait until an unfortunate animal crosses the cat's path and then pounce upon it for the kill. Other cats actively stalk their prey, take up position for attack, and charge in for the capture. Most cats are well camouflaged, with stripes or spots that let them blend into the surrounding vegetation and shadows.

The majority of cat species are solitary animals outside of the breeding season. Lions are an exception to this rule though, they form long-term social groups called prides. Prides are usually made up of 4-6 related adult lions and their cubs.

Most cats have retractable claws. They extend their claws only when needed for capturing prey or for traction when running or climbing. When claws are not needed, the cats keep them hidden away, sharp and ready for use. Cheetahs are unable to retract their claws, and experts believe this is an adaptation to fast running.

Vision is cats' best developed sense. Felids have sharp eyesight and their eyes are positioned on the front of their head so they both facing forward to produce the optimal focusing ability and acute depth perception.

Cats have extremely flexible spines, enabling them to use more muscles when running and achieve faster speeds than other mammals.

Since they use more muscles when running, cats burn more energy and therefore cannot maintain speed for extended periods of time without experiencing fatigue.

Cats inhabit a wide variety of habitats including coasts, deserts, forests, grasslands, and mountains. They have colonized almost every corner of the globe with the exceptions of Australia, Greenland, Iceland, New Zealand, Antarctica, Madagascar, and remote oceanic islands. Note that domestic cats have been introduced into many regions once void of cats.

During the Palaeocene, carnivores diverged into two separate linages, a feliform or cat-like lineage and a caniform or dog-like lineage. Modern cats first appeared about 10.8 million years ago.

Species Diversity

Approximately 41 species

Classification

Cats are classified within the following taxonomic hierarchy:

Animals > Chordates > Vertebrates > Tetrapods > Amniotes > Mammals > Carnivores > Cats

Cats are divided into the following taxonomic groups:

  • Small cats (Felinae) - There are about 34 species of small cats alive today. Members of this group include ocelots, lynxes, mountain lions, caracals and many others. Small cats first evolved about 9 million years ago during the late Miocene. 
  • Large cats (Pantherinae) - There are 7 species of large cats alive today. Members of this group include the panthers (lions, tigers, jaguars, leopards, and snow leopards) and the clouded leopards. Most species of large cats are endangered.
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Klappenbach, Laura. "Cats." ThoughtCo, Feb. 9, 2017, thoughtco.com/what-are-cats-of-felidae-129734. Klappenbach, Laura. (2017, February 9). Cats. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-are-cats-of-felidae-129734 Klappenbach, Laura. "Cats." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-are-cats-of-felidae-129734 (accessed December 16, 2017).