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Science College, General Science Dept


2. The Variety of Living Felidae

A species may be defined as a population of similar animals that interbreed in the wild. There are about 36 species of Felidae-- that much is more or less agreed. But how closely these species are related is a rather open question. The genus is the next classification up from the species, and a genus (plural, genera) is a group of very similar species.

Whether all cats are similar enough to be included in the genus Felis, or whether there should be two, or many genera in the Felidae is still being debated. So do not be surprised if you do your own further reading and find, for example, that the lion might be classified as *Panthera leo* or as *Felis leo*. It is not a mistake-- it is just another system of classification.

Classical taxonomy tried to find traits in animals, particularly in their bones, that might not have changed quickly over time, and use them to show relationships between animals. But which traits are more important in showing these relationships? Emphasising different traits is one reason we have differing ideas on how close the species are in the Felidae.

The modern trend is to use DNA analysis and other microscopic characteristics to judge how closely species are related. Sometimes the new methods support the old findings, sometimes new patterns of relationship are revealed.

According to one of the most common classifications of the modern Felidae, there are four genera:

 *Panthera*-- the lion, tiger, jaguar and leopard
 *Neofelis*-- the clouded leopard
 *Acinonyx*-- the cheetah
 *Felis* -- the puma, lynx, ocelot, leopard, serval, caracal, domestic cat, wild cat and quite a few others.

The jaguar, leopard, lion and tiger also have been given their own genus *Panthera* in this classification. These are the big cats, or roaring cats, and typically they cannot purr like we do. Roaring is made possible by the shape of the bones supporting the larynx. 

The cheetah has its own genus because it is very distinct from the other cats-- some zoologists even describe the skeleton as "doglike" (not implying they are closely related) because their claws cannot retract, their legs are long and they cannot climb. They are immensely trainable and were favoured for thousands of years as hunting companions in Asia and Egypt.

The clouded leopard also bears witness to a somewhat long history of divergence from other Felids-- so it too is given its own genus, *Neofelis*. The clouded leopard is grayish or yellowish to brownish yellow in color, with black spots and dashes on the head, legs, and tail and large black-bordered, "cloudlike" blotches on its sides. The blotches have pale centers and darker rear borders. These markings are unique in the cat family and are part of the reason why this animal has its own separate genus. Possibly the clouded leopard did not inherit its spots from the same lineage as other cats, but developed them all on its own after an early divergence from the other cats.

The largest cat of all is the Tiger, *Panthera tigris*. A large male weighs as much as 700 pounds and is ten to eleven feet in length-- but add another three feet for the tail!Perhaps the smallest cat is the Rusty-spotted cat, *Prionailurus rubiginosus*. It lives in India and Sri Lanka. Less than half the size of a typical domestic cat, it stands only seven inches high at the shoulders and usually weighs less than three pounds. 




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