Friday, 16 January 2015

Who's who: a baseline

A sagacious friend commented last week that, as a recent convert to wildlife, he would like to know more, before I travel, about the cats for which I will be searching throughout 2015. Having grown up attending weekly meetings of Attenboroholics Anonymous ('I'm Nick and I'm addicted to The Living Planet'), initially I was taken aback. Didn't everyone know the difference between leopards and jaguars, and where in the world they both lived? Wasn't everyone aware that Gerald Durrell had kept a Geoffroy's cat in an Argentine garage in The Whispering Land? Weird.

Then I realised that I was the weird one, and that most people, quite reasonably, couldn't tell their pampas cats from their Andean cats and wouldn't know a Pallas' cat if it were snuggled in their sock drawer. (On being asked once in Ladakh what a Pallas' cat looked like, I thought quickly on my feet and replied, 'Put a snow leopard in the wash at far too high a temperature, then bash in its nose with a plank.' Never bash in a Pallas' cat's nose with a plank, but it's what one looks like, I promise.)

So I'm weird and many people may need an introduction to the cats, big and small, that I shall be looking for this year. Bite-sized is the way forward, so in a post to follow very soon we'll start with the cats of northern Tanzania, where I shall be spending the last two weeks of January. Prior to that, however, we have some ground rules to establish.

The first thing you need to understand, since I've set out to see 'all the world's big cats in a single year' is that some big cats are small cats and some small cats have recently (and very inconveniently for my purposes) become big cats. Are you following?

Lion by Jude Cavey

For the sake of having a structure to work to, this year I will be adopting the cat taxonomy used in the Handbook of the Mammals of the World (Volume 1, Carnivores) edited by Don E. Wilson and Russell A. Mittermeier (with the exception that the Chinese mountain cat Felis bieti is now considered a subspecies of the wildcat Felis silvestris). There are thus (having discounted the aforementioned mountain cat) thirty-six wild cat species in the world, all of them in the family Felidae and all readily recognisable as cats. If you're a feline newbie, this fact alone - that there are thirty-six species of wild cat - may come as a surprise.

The family Felidae is further subdivided into two subfamilies, the Pantherinae or big cats, and the Felinae or small cats. So far, so simple. (But not 'simples'; oh no, those kats are in an altogether different family, the Herpestidae.) The problem from my point of view is that cat taxonomy used to be relatively straightforward, until Watson and Crick ruined natural history forever. In the good old days, the cats that were big were largely considered big cats and almost all placed in the genus Panthera. The cats that were small... well, you can fill in the blanks; and most of them were in the genus Felis. Recent genetic research, however, has radically changed the shape of things. For example, the Latin American jaguarundi (small, slim and decidedly weaselesque) has ended up in the same genus as the pan-American puma (definitely big in size, albeit on the slender side, and always referred to as a big cat); the Old World cheetah (scrawny yes, leggy too, but size-wise certainly big, and again one of the classic big cats) has become their closest relative, and all three of them are squarely in the small cat subfamily the Felinae. Thus two of the big cats I will be looking for this year, the puma and the cheetah, are in fact small cats by genetic affinity.

And then there are the clouded leopards. Don't talk to me about the clouded leopards. Just a few years ago there was one species of clouded leopard and it was the biggest small cat. Then the Watson and Crick brigade had to put their oar in and the clouded leopard became two (genuinely valid) species: the Asian (sometimes Indochinese) clouded leopard in mainland Southeast Asia and the Sunda (sometimes Diard's) clouded leopard in Sumatra and Borneo. As David Macdonald and Andrew Loveridge (editors) point out in their Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, the two species of clouded leopard in the genus Neofelis now sit with the genus Panthera (the unequivocally big big cats such as the lion, the jaguar and the tiger) in the Pantherinae or big cat subfamily.

So I have two more big cats to look for. Thanks Watson and Crick, thanks for that. More on the niceties of these discoveries, and their implications for me, anon.

For now, what have we learned? There are thirty-six species of wild cat in the world. They fall into two subfamilies, the generally big Pantherinae and the generally small Felinae.

Here, for the sake of a baseline (and without yet going into subspecies [oh the fun we'll have]), are the world's wild cats:

Family Felidae

Subfamily Pantherinae

Asian clouded leopard Neofelis nebulosa
Sunda clouded leopard Neofelis diardi
snow leopard Panthera uncia
tiger Panthera tigris
leopard Panthera pardus
lion Panthera leo
jaguar Panthera onca

Subfamily Felinae

marbled cat Pardofelis marmorata
bay cat Catopuma badia
Asian golden cat Catopuma temminckii
serval Leptailurus serval
African golden cat Profelis aurata
caracal Caracal caracal
ocelot Leopardus pardalis
margay Leopardus wiedii
pampas cat Leopardus colocolo
Andean cat Leopardus jacobitus
oncilla Leopardus tigrinus
kodkod Leopardus guigna (I promise I'm not just making these names up.)
Geoffroy's cat Leopardus geoffroyi (Quite different from Henry's cat.)
bobcat Lynx rufus
Canadian lynx Lynx canadensis
Eurasian lynx Lynx lynx
Iberian lynx Lynx pardinus
cheetah Acinonyx jubatus
jaguarundi Puma yagouaroundi
puma Puma concolor
Pallas' cat Otocolobus manul
rusty-spotted cat Prionailurus rubiginosus
flat-headed cat Prionailurus planiceps
fishing cat Prionailurus viverrinus
leopard cat Prionailurus bengalensis
jungle cat Felis chaus
black-footed cat Felis nigripes
sand cat Felis margarita
wildcat Felis silvestris

In summary: I have a heck of a lot to achieve this year.

In other news, today the same friend
became my first #BigCatQuest groupie


  1. This is a great start. I've already learned several new things about cats ("big" and "small") and you a haven't even started looking for them yet. Looking forward to more.

  2. Excellent & informative summary. Just catching up on your blog after moving into our new temporary home with our own small cat.

  3. Excellent & informative summary. Just catching up on your blog after moving into our new temporary home with our own small cat.

  4. Excellent & informative summary. Just catching up on your blog after moving with our own small cat, who incidentally is taking all the upheaval in his stride.