Painting of four different big cats.

Cat Family Branching Out

Among carnivores, the cat family Felidae are the most accomplished killers and are highly specialized anatomically for this purpose. Some species are capable of killing prey larger than themselves.

The big cats, or pantherine branch—large, impressive, fast, and ferocious—appeared at least 10.8 million years ago. Later branches gave rise first to the bay cat group in Africa 9.4 million years ago followed by the caracal group in Africa 8.5 million years ago.

The ocelot group, which arose about 8 million years ago, crossed into South America when the Panamanian land bridge was formed. This highway permitted small cats from North and Central America (now known only from fossil remains) to migrate and diversify there.

Nine of the 10 living cat species of South America belong to the ocelot group, which are unusual in having 36 chromosomes (18 pairs) rather than the more usual felid number of 38.

The lynx group and the puma group evolved 7.2 and 6.7 million years ago respectively and contain species from different continents, suggesting a number of different migrations.

These cats include the cheetah, which originated from the puma lineage in North America and subsequently crossed into Asia and Africa where it survives today. The leopard cat and domestic cat groups are the most recent additions to the cat family and both are restricted to Eurasia.

The first modern Felis species is thought to be Felis lunensis, which appeared about 2.5 million years ago during the Pliocene period. It later gave rise to the wildcat Felis sylvestris, of which the European strain is the oldest, dating back about 250,000 years.

It migrated anywhere that had a suitable habitat and prey to sustain it. The African wildcat, Felis silvestris lybica, became distinct about 20,000 years ago and it is from these cats that the domestic cat came into being, probably around 8,000 years ago.