Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Felidae: an introduction

Hello, and welcome to Felidae, a blog exclusively devoted to disseminating information on the research, ecology, and conservation of the world's felid species.

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Whence the Felidae?


The Felidae comprises a group of extant and extinct carnivorans whose origins, according to genetic data (and corroborated by fossil data), can be found at the end of the Eocene epoch, ~ 32 million years ago. The end of the Eocene and the beginning of the Oligocene epoch was characterized by rapid environmental change, with a marked contraction of tropical forests and the initial development of modern grasslands. With rapid environmental change comes increased opportunities for speciation, and it is probable that the Felidae owes its existence to said environmental alterations.

From this initial branching, two distinct groups emerged ~ 13-14 million years ago in Europe and in Asia: the Machairodontinae (colloquially "saber-toothed cats") and the Felinae (colloquially "conical-toothed cats"), a clade that includes all living felid species. Machairodontines were most notably characterized by a variety of cranial adaptations that facilitated an increased gape size of the mouth, likely related to their often remarkably long and flat canines. Representatives included the iconic Smilodon, Homotherium, Dinofelis, and Megantereon. Though the function of said hypertrophied canines is still debated, it may be noteworthy that the extant clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa and Neofelis diardii) has several convergent cranial characteristics, and has been recorded killing relatively large-sized deer and pigs with a deep bite to the nape.


Sunda clouded leopard displaying the wide gape and elongate teeth.
Image courtesy of Flickr user 'timogan', registered under a creative commons license.


However, the exact function of their unusual dentition may never be known, as the last of the Machairodontinae went extinct during the Quaternary extinction event, leading to a single living clade of felids.



Through genetic data, modern Felinae has been divided into 8 distinct lineages. The first of these lineages, the Panthera lineage, diverged ~ 10.8 million years ago, and includes both species of the primitive-most extant felid, the clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa and Neofelis diardii, native to south-eastern mainland Asia and Sumatra/Borneo respectively), the lion (Panthera leo), the jaguar (Panthera onca), the leopard (Panthera pardus), the tiger (Panthera tigris), and the snow leopard (Panthera uncia). 

Sunda clouded leopard.
Image courtesy of Flickr user 'canorus', registered under a creative commons license.


The second lineage to diverge (circa 9.4 million years ago), the bay cat lineage, is restricted to southern Asia and consists of three species of the Pardofelis genus. These include the little-studied and elusive bay cat (Pardofelis badia), the marbled cat (Pardofelis marmorata), and the Asiatic golden cat (Pardofelis temminckii). 

Bay cat.
Image courtesy of Jim Sanderson, registered under a creative commons license.


The Caracal lineage, diverging ~ 8.5 million years ago, consists of the caracal (Caracal caracal), the African golden cat (Profelis aurata), and the serval (Leptailurus serval).

Caracal.
Image courtesy of Flickr user 'orkomedix', registered under a creative commons license.


The fourth lineage to diverge, the Ocelot lineage, consists of seven species of small-bodied New World felids, including the ocelot (Leoparadus pardalis), the margay (Leopardus wiedii), the Geoffroy's cat (Leopardus geoffroyi), the oncilla (Leopardus tigrinus), the guiƱa (a.ka. 'kodkod', Leopardus guigna), the colocolo (a.k.a. 'pampas cat', Leopardus colocolo), and the Andean cat (Leopardus jacobita).

Ocelot.
Image courtesy of Flickr user 'siwild', registered under a creative commons license.


The fifth Felinae lineage, the Lynx lineage (diverging ~ 7.2 million years ago) contains four species of a single genus, of which two are native to North America and two are native to Europe and Asia. These include the Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx), the critically endangered Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus), the bobcat (Lynx rufus), and the Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis). 

Eurasian lynx.
Image courtesy of Flickr user 'dogrando', registered under a creative commons license.


The Puma lineage, diverging ~ 6.7 million years ago, consists of the puma (Puma concolor), the small-bodied jaguarundi (Puma yagouaroundi), and the cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus). 

Puma.
Image courtesy of Flickr user 'Lil Rose', registered under a creative commons license.


The Leopard cat lineage diverged at ~ 6.2 million years ago and consists of five species of Old World felids, including the Leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis), the Pallas's cat (Otocolobus manul), the flat-headed cat (Prionailurus planiceps), the rusty-spotted cat (Prionailurus rubiginosus), and the fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinu). 

Leopard cat.
Image courtesy of Flickr user 'siwild', registered under a creative commons license.

Similarly, the domestic cat lineage diverged ~ 6.2 million years ago, and comprises the wildcat (Felis silvestris), the Chinese mountain cat (Felis bieti),  the black-footed cat (Felis nigripes), the sand cat (Felis margarita), and the jungle cat (Felis chaus).  

Scottish wild cat.
Image courtesy of Flickr user 'Fred Dawson', registered under a creative commons license.

The Felidae contains some of the most elusive and imperiled carnivore species alive today. Knowledge of their ecology is crucial to their conservation, and it is my hope that the things you learn from this blog will help spur your interests in these remarkable animals. Furthermore, I will be documenting my own journeys in the field of felid conservation biology, and hope that you find them to your enjoyment as well.

Until next time!

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