When we think of our cats’ wild relatives we tend to think of their big cat cousins – the lions, leopards, panthers and tigers. It’s certainly true that our kitties would have us believe that they are fearsome little lions or majestic mini-jaguars!
But it turns out that there is actually a group of much closer wild relations that our cats have forgotten to tell us about entirely.
While the headline-grabbing big cats went their separate way about 10 million years ago, the rest of the cat family became a group known as the FELINAE – a marvellous band of small and medium cats that includes not just our own domestic cats but also an amazing collection of their relations that still live in the wild.
For too long these littler cats have been eclipsed by the swagger of their big cat cousins. But it’s time to redress the balance! In this week’s Sunday Read we meet some of the close wild relations that your cat has been keeping a secret all of this time...
Photo credit: Supreet Sahoo
1. The Margay
If you love watching your cat's climbing antics you’re going to love the margay. These tree-dwelling cats live in the tropical forests of central and south America although as recently as 1850 they stretched as far North as Texas.
They are about the size of a domestic cat (but with longer legs and GIANT paws) and tend to spend almost all of their time prowling in the canopy of trees, hunting by night for rats, squirrels, opossums, monkeys and birds.
Their real claim to fame is their acrobatic skills. They are able to jump 8 feet straight into the air and 12 feet horizontally, ricocheting off objects in mid-leap (like Spiderman). Their extra-mobile toes let them grip branches with ease, and their hind feet can rotate inwards through an incredible 180°, making them one of the only cats able to climb headfirst down vertical trees.
And, as if all of that wasn’t impressive enough, they have one more spectacular party trick: they can hang off a branch with a single paw, before gracefully returning to their branch again. These kitties are the masters of the one-handed pull up!
WHERE DO THEY LIVE? Central and South America
SUPER KITTY POWER: Margays have recently been found to hunt in a particularly sneaky way – impersonating the sound of small baby monkeys to lure adult monkeys in, before launching their attack.
DON’T SAY: Aren't cats supposed to get stuck up tall trees?
DO SAY: Do you do the trapeze?
Photo credit: Flickr - Tambako
2. The Pallas' Cat
Pallas' cats are about the same size as domestic cats but have wonderfully floofy fur that makes them look much bigger and heavier than they actually are. Their fur is actually the longest and densest of any cat, measuring twice the length on their belly than on their back and sides! This helps them keep warm in their home environment – the cold dry high-altitude steppes of central Asia.
Their favourite food in the whole world is a small mammal called Pika, which makes up more than 50% of their diet (don’t google image search the Pika – it’s as cute as you imagine it is, and it might make you have second thoughts about how much you love the Pallas' cat!).
And actually, despite their floofiness the Pallas' Cat can be pretty feisty! At Cincinnati Zoo they bred Pallas’ cats in captivity, and when their first litter was born the zookeepers were concerned that the kittens were having trouble breathing. That was until they “listened closely, [and] realised that the noise they were hearing was the kittens growling and hissing at each other – before they had even opened their eyes!”
WHERE DO THEY LIVE? Throughout central Asia from western Iran to western China
SUPER KITTY POWER: Unlike other cats, their pupils contract into small circles rather than vertical slits. The jury’s still out about exactly why this may be.
DON’T SAY: Join the pika appreciation society!
DO SAY: Short back and sides?
Photo credit: Flickr - Charles Barilleaux
3. The Sand Cat
Scientists call this cat the sand cat, because it is the only cat in the world to make the desert its primary home. I like to call this the ‘disapproving cat’ because, well – just take a look at that face!
Or this one...
Photo credit: Flickr - Tambako
Why is the sand cat so disapproving? Well, it probably has something to do with the fact that in the wild these cats live seriously solitary lives, getting together only during the few short days of mating season, so they’re probably not all that pleased to have the company of a great big human photographer pointing the lens in their face.
As you might have guessed from their facial expressions, these are some seriously badass kitties. Their diet includes such tricksy desert delicacies as spiny mice, desert monitors and sand vipers. They can sprint at speeds of 30 – 40 kilometres an hour, the rest of the time preferring a rather amazing crouched stealth-scuttle as their way of getting around. And they can hot foot it across the scorching desert sands thanks to their thickly furred toes. Check out these bad boys!
WHERE DO THEY LIVE? Deserts in Northern Africa and SW and Central Asia
SUPER KITTY POWER: Sand cats can survive without drinking water for weeks at a time. They will instead obtain any moisture they need from their prey.
DON’T SAY: Let’s hang out together
DO SAY: Hairy toes are beautiful
Photo credit: Patrick Ch. Apfeld
4. Black Footed Cat
Errr... why aren’t its feet black?
It turns out they are, but only the pads and undersides of each paw. And it isn’t even the only cat to have black-soled feet.
But let’s forgive the black footed cat their rubbish name because they have another claim to fame. The black footed cat is Africa’s tiniest wild cat, and quite possibly the smallest cat in the world (although there is one exceptionally rare wildcat in India that might win by a whisker). Most domestic cats would tower over them!
They live particularly secretive lives in the Savannah, sleeping in unoccupied spring hare or porcupine burrows by day. At night, they hunt by creeping up on potential prey, almost slithering like a snake from boulder to boulder before they’re within striking distance. In the wild they tend to hunt small mammals, but the black footed cat does enjoy a challenge. There are reports of them successfully taking down sheep and goats by going for their necks, and in a zoo one tiny 1.5kg female even tried (unsuccessfully) to stalk an 80kg ostrich!
WHERE DO THEY LIVE? South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe
SUPER KITTY POWER: They are expert diggers. Unlike domestic cats, who ‘dig’ lazily using a single paw, black-footed cats dig almost like a dog – fully committing themselves to the task at hand with a double-pawed digging style!
DON’T SAY: Why aren’t your feet black?
DO SAY: Sure sweetie, you could take down a giraffe. I believe in you.
5. The Asian Leopard Cat
Last but not least we have the Asian Leopard Cat. This is the species that was hybridised with domestic cats to create the Bengal cat breed - and it's where Bengals get their fabulous coats and markings from!
In the wild, Asian Leopard Cats are shy, mostly nocturnal cats that live in forests in Asia. They are expert climbers that spend a lot of their time prowling in the trees. One favourite method of hunting is climbing a tree before leaping down on their prey (such as a small mammal or bird) from above.
Their other key skill is their expert swimming ability. They're certainly not afraid to get a paw wet in a forest stream if there's a fish supper on the cards! But the evidence suggests they're even bolder around water than that. In the past, they seem to have colonised new islands by swimming across ocean straits to get there.
The one thing they don't seem to like is the cold. You notice in the wild that their range ends where the snow begins, and they give cold steppe grasslands a miss too.
WHERE DO THEY LIVE? From Eastern Europe to the Philippines
SUPER KITTY POWER: Unlike other wild cats Asian Leopard Cats seem unusually tolerant of human disturbance, and seem to live alongside human villages and settlements fairly well (although they're still very wild - they aren't pet material!). New evidence shows that the earliest 'domestic' cats in China were actually the descendants of Asian Leopard Cats - although that lineage isn't still around today (so only Bengal cats and Serengeti cats can count Asian Leopard Cats as a direct ancestor).
DON’T SAY: Be my pet
DO SAY: Let's swim to the next island
Did you recognise your cat's traits in any of its wild relatives? Have we missed a favourite wild relative that you think we should have included? I'd love to hear from you.
Leave a comment in the box below or join in the conversation over on Instagram or Facebook (both @supakitstore).