Cats, a very uniform animal group, are sometimes classified into big and small species, distinguished by a surprising but fundamental difference: the big cats's roar. This awe-inspiring sound is actually due to the absence of a section of hyoid bone on each side of the big cat's throat. Normally this bone is made up of two symmetrical chains of bones attaching the base of the tongue to the skull. The joints linking these little bones control movements connected with swallowing and the production of vocal sounds.
In the big cats (lions, tigers, leopards or panthers, and jaguars), one of these bones is replaced on each side by a pliable sheath of cartilage that allows greater movement of the larynx, and thus the roar. Cats with ordinary hyoid bones can only mew caterwaul.
Taxonomists, specialists in scientific classification of animals, classify the cat family in different ways. Three genera are used here: Panthera for big Cats, Acynonyx for the cheetah, and Felis for all other feline species. Naturalists have had a hard time classifying some species because many avoid man. This is one reason why classification vary.
All species of Felis are solitary, generally nocturnal, and frequently arboreal. They are predominantly meat-eaters, although the Asian flat-headed cat relies heavily on fruit and the fishing cat, also found in the Far East, is so partial to fish that it catches them in its claws. All cats have well-developed sight and very sharp hearing, which allow them to make successful hunting forays at dawn and dusk. They have a strong sense of smell, which is used more for detecting and communicating with other animals than for hunting.
A single cat usually has several lairs in its territory, one of which is used by the female to give birth. The male and female will live together only during the mating season, and few males actually take part in rearing the young. The litter may number from one to six cubs depending on the species. All feline offspring are born blind but covered with fur.
Both the wild and domestic cat belong to one family, the Felidae. The subfamily Felinae includes Ocelots and Wild Cats which consist of cats living in parts of Europe. Africa and Asia. The largest member is the Jungle Cat which can weigh up to 35 lb. This subfamily includes the following genera: Acinonyx, Caracal, Catopuma, Felis, Leopardus, Leptailurus, Lynx, Pardofelis, Profelis, Prionailurus and Puma.
The Genus Felis includes domestic cat (Felis catus) and the following species:
- African Golden Cat Felis aurata
- Caracas Lynx Lynx caracal is a slender cat with a strong head and narrow pointed and tufted ears. It can be found in African and Asian deserts, savannahs, and mountain ranges. Mainly nocturnal, it hunts small and large birds, rodents, and small ungulates.
- African Wild Cat Felis lybica is larger than the domestic cat and more robustly built. It can be seen in all kinds of habitats. Mainly nocturnal, it hunts on the ground but is also a good climber, sometimes taking its prey up into a tree to eat in a leopard-like manner. In some countries, this cat has been tamed and trained to hunt for man.
- Eurasian Lynx Lynx lynx Weighing up to 85 pounds, Eurasian Lynx is a magnificent animal with tufted ears and sideburns which it uses to communicate with other cats.
- Jungle Cat Felis chaus is found in African and Asian woodlands, cornfields and near human habitats. It hunts by day and night.
- Sand Cat Felis margarita is a small cat with short limbs and unusual feet that have dense mats of hair hiding the pads to protect them from hot sand. It can be seen in North Africa and SW Asia hunting for small rodents and reptiles.
- Black-footed Cat Felis nigripes is the smallest of all African cats, probably the smallest wild cat in the world. This species lives on dry sand plains and grassy savannahs. Mainly nocturnal, it hunts at dawn and twilight.
- Serval Felis serval. The Serval can be found near water in dense cover. This terrestrial cat hunts rats, lizards, small game birds and even small ungulates. Mainly nocturnal, it also hunts in the daytime.
- Leopard Panthera pardus is a large cat weighing 70-120 pounds. It can be found over every type of habitats from Africa to SE Asia. About 15 subspecies have been registered so far.
- Chinese Desert Cat Felis silvestris bieti is a fairly large yellowish cat with hairy feet pads weighing about 12 pounds. It is found mainly in China and Southern Mongolia. This nocturnal hunter preys on small rodents.
- Lion Panthera leo
- Cheetah Acinonyx jubatus is a tall, slim cat, built for speed and running down its prey. Its length can reach 4-5 feet and it can weigh up to 140 pounds. It is mainly found in African and South Asian dry open areas, semi-deserts, light woodlands and acacia scrubs. This is a diurnal hunter which preys on small antelopes, other ungulates and hares.
- Fishing Cat Felis viverrrinus is a large cat weighing up to 25 pounds that can be found in marshy areas and mangrove swamps of South Asia and Sumatra. This diurnal hunter preys on fish, molluscs, frogs, small mammals, snakes, and birds.
- Flat-headed Cat Felis planiceps is a small, unusual cat, with a very long body, short limbs and tail and flattened head. Found mainly in South Asia, Sumatra and Borneo, this nocturnal hunter preys on fish and frogs, but also consumes fruit and sweet potatoes.
- Iriomote Cat Felis iriomotenis
- Marbled Cat Felis marmorata
- Leopard Cat Felis bengalensis
- Pallas Cat Felis manul
- Rusty Spotted Cat Felis rubuginosa
- Temminck's Golden Cat Felis temminck
- Clouded Leopard Neofelis nebulosa is an accomplished climber. With its long canines it earned the name "modern-day sabre-tooth." This is a shy and solitary creature which stays away from civilization.
- Tiger Panthera tigris
- Snow Leopard Panthera uncia
- Bobcat Felis rufus
- Jaguarundi Felis yagouaroundi
- Geoffroy's Cat Felis geoffroyi
- Kodkod Felis guigna
- Margay Felis wiedii
- Mountain Cat Felis jacobita
- Ocelot Felis pardalis is a small cat that wasn once hunted for its beautiful coat but is now internationally protected. It can swim and will catch fish. Unusually for a big cat, she is provided with food by the male while suckling her young.
- Pampas Cat Felis colocolo
- Puma Felis concolor
- Tiger Cat Felis tigrina
- Jaguar Panthera onca
- Northern Lynx Felis lynx
- Spanish lynx Felis pardina
- Southern African wildcat Felis silvestris cafra
- Near Eastern wildcat Felis silvestris libyca
- Central Asian wildcat Felis silvestris ornata
- European Wild Cat Felis silvestris is becoming quite rare. Many live close enough to civilization and often mate with feral and even domestic cats which threatens the survival of the species. The Scottish wild cat is an endangered species.