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Science College, General Science Dept


1. Felids: Description and Habits

As part of the Carnivora, the Felidae are all adapted for a hunting life. In fact, cats are the most specialised hunters of all the Carnivora-- the ultimate meat eater. This can be seen when you closely examine any member of the Felidae. They are further specialised for hunting in twilight or at night, and for their ancestral choice: a tree-dwelling life.

Cats have large, forward-facing eyes The pupil and the lens are much enlarged relative to the size of the retina, (the layer of light sensitive cells at the back of the eye). The high proportion of extremely light sensative cells in the retina (rods), compared to the cells optimized for vision in high intensity lighting (cones), allows the felids to be well suited for low light conditions through sacrificing some color-vision. Cats, in common with other nocturnal animals, have an additional, reflective layer behind the retina, the tapetum lucidum. Light that has passed through the retina without being absorbed, and therefore not sensed by the cells of the retina, is reflected by the tapetum, passes back through the retina, and thus has another chance of being registered by a rod cell. (The tapetum is why a nocturnal animals' eyes shine when a torch is directed at them.)

The eye structure of the felids greatly improves the light gathering ability of the eyes and results in night vision about six times better than that of humans. Its other senses are also acute-- the hearing of a cat's long, erect and mobile ears is excellent. They have long whiskers for sensing the prey close-up and can even feel through their teeth. Cats have an acute sense of smell, but from what little is known, this doesn't seem so important in hunting prey-- smell is very important in social interaction and possibly for defense (sensing predators).

Most often the tails are long to aid in balance, and the fur is either spotted or striped to hide them from prey (and sometimes from predator too). All cats move silently and gracefully. There are five digits on the hand and four on the foot, generally armed with retractable claws for silent stalking. The weight of the body is carried on what are the finger and toe-tips in humans, and the spine is unusually flexible. The skeleton of the Felid shows other specializations for sudden leaping motions too, and they have strong limbs armed with sharp claws for catching prey. 

The gut or alimentary canal is short in felids and the stomach is simple, not compartmentalized as amongst the herbivores that chew their cud. Felid digestion is geared towards meat which can be rapidly digested and requires only a short intestine.

Capturing prey is a culmination of a series of instinction
-based actions including stalking, chasing, and pouncing. Much of its success is due to the cat's ability to both move with ease and to remain motionless for long periods of time, often up to 30 minutes, until it can creep closer for the final dash. Usually, only after the prey has been seized with the forepaws will the cat actually bite its prey. The first bite is frequently at the base of the neck, on the shoulder, or positioned to gain control of the prey and correctly position the claws. The lethal bite is generally at the nape of the neck, where damage to the brain or spinal cord kills the victim quickly. On larger prey, the lethal bite often occurs to the throat area producing suffocation. 

Felid jaws are powerful, and their articulation is straight up and down with no sideways movement as in other mammals. They have a reduction in tooth number and the incisor teeth are specialized for piercing, the canines for tearing. There are no flat molars suitable for grinding food such as humans have-- but some molars have a raised edge which forms a blade suitable for slicing. Thus the cat can bite and cut and tear, but cannot chew its food. Chewing is necessary for the breakdown of plant food, but not for meat, whose breakdown begins not in the mouth, but in the acids of the stomach.

The Felid tongue is peculiar among the carnivores. Primarily a body-cleaning tool, it is also an important part of the feeding apparatus. The upper surface is covered with short pointed projections called papillae, giving it the appearance and feel of a wood rasp. Although small in house cats, the papillae of big cats are imposing-- scraps of meat and tissue are easily separated from the surface of bone by passing the tongue over the area to be cleaned.

In the Felidae, the brain is large with the areas involved in intelligence greatly developed. Thus the cat has a lot of "grey matter" with which to process information about its prey and to decide how to go about capturing it. A cat's hunting behavior is not just instinct, its skills need to be hones by experience. For example, it learns over time to associate the presence of food not just with the sight of the animals, but also with subtler cues such as footmarks. And it learns over time to adapt its hunting behavior to the habits and weaknesses of whatever prey is available.

Very few cat species are social, they hunt alone and live alone except when females are raising young. All cats are territorial, using scent, signs, and sounds to signal their presence to other cats. Felid territory, or home range, usually includes hunting grounds, denning areas, water, favorite lookout points, and resting spots. In general, a cat will not accept the presence of another cat of the same sex within its territory. The outstanding exception to solitariness is the lion, which lives in well-defined prides where the females may hunt together. *F. catus* (our own species) will live in groups if the food supply is abundant, either in domesticity or in the wild.




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