Elegant, powerful, and elusive, wildcats can be large and may roar like a lion, or small and purr like a domestic cat. They are superb hunters, adapted to be as successful living in a dry sandy desert as they are in a dense tropical forest.
Cats are predatory hunters belonging to the order Carnivora. They are, like all carnivores, adapted for stalking, catching, and eating other animals. For example, they have large canine teeth and powerful jaw muscles.
There are 37 species of cat in the family Felidae. All are similar in having retractile claws, rather blunt, flattened faces, acute hearing, and large eyes that enable them to hunt at night. Those living in open landscapes tend to be sandy colored, while those living in woodland and forest often have spectacular markings that break up their outline and keep them well hidden from their prey.
The cat family is divided into two main groups—the Pantherinae and the Felinae. The pantherines (big cats) have long been distinguished from other cats on the supposition that they can, whereas the smaller cats can only purr. In recent years, genetic evidence has allowed scientists to better understand the relationships between the smaller cats and further subdivide them into seven groups, or lineages.
Wildcats are successful in evolutionary terms in that they were once widespread and found in many different habitats, but most species are now either endangered or threatened. In contrast, there are an estimated 600 million domestic cats worldwide.
There are seven species of pantherines, or big cats—the lion, leopard, tiger, snow leopard, two species of clouded leopard, and the jaguar. The lion and leopard have the widest distribution, being found in both Africa and Asia. The tiger, snow and clouded leopards are limited to Asia.
The only big cat found in the Americas is the jaguar. Although commonly referred to as the roaring cats, only some, such as lions, can do so. This is because they have more complicated and flexible vocal chords in their larynxes than those found in the smaller cats.