|History and Evolution|
Evolution of the Wild Cats
The earliest fossil records of the modern felid ancestors come from a period of just under 10 million years ago. However findings of such fossils are rare and it is difficult to piece together a comprehensive picture of the early relationship between the felid species.
The small cats, those grouped in the genus felis, are poorly represented, with the exception that is, of the ancestor of the modern day Lynx. The early descendants of the lynx first appeared around 4 million years ago and is known as the Issoire Lynx (Lynx issidorensis). This early lynx was larger than the forms found today and is said more to resemble those species from the genus felis, notably in having shorter legs than the lynx of today.
It is now commonly believed that the jaguar and leopard both share a common ancestry, centred in Eurasia a little over 2 million years ago. Along with the leopard, the jauguar spread west into Europe, where it is recorded as Panthera gombaszoegensist, fossil remains of which have been dated at about 1.5 million years.
Early jaguars also travelled east and crossed the Bering land bridge into North America. The ancestral jaguars that inhabited the Americas were both larger and longer legged than the modern species. With the appearance of the lion in North America in the form of P.leo.atrox, it appears that the jaguar was driven south into the more densely forested regions of Central and Southern America. As an adaptation to its new habitat, it is believed that the jaguar began a gradual reduction in overall body size.
Ancestral tigers were thought to have originated from Central Asia and China and spread out both east and west to cover most of Asia from the Caspian Sea to the Russian Far East. It is thought that the modern day tiger, found in northern China is perhaps the closest direct descendant of the earliest forms of the species.
Fossil records show that the lion appeared on the scene considerably more recently than the other members on the genus Panthera. The earliest known records date back to around 750,000 years ago and stem from Western Africa. From here lions spread north into Asia and Europe, were the Cave lion (Panthera spelaea) and Tuscany lion were found in the Balkans and Northern Italy respectively. The ancestral lion also crossed from Asia into north America and the American lion (Panthera atrox) spread south as far as Peru.
Early forms of the cheetah are also believed to have inhabited North America as far back as 2½ million years ago (Acinonyx studeri) to as recently as 12,000 years ago in the smaller form of Acinonyx trumani. Although the 'American' cheetahs exhibited many characteristics of the modern cheetah there is some evidence against a close relationship. It has also been suggested that the cheetah in North America has possible ancestral links with the puma.
The early 'Old World' form, Acinonyx pardinensis found in Europe, closely resembled the modern day cheetah apart from being noticeably larger. Fossil remains of A.pardinensis in France,have been dated at around 2 million years.
Naming the Species
- find out how scientific names are applied to the different species
Classification - find out how wild cats are grouped according to species
Evolution - find out about the history of the cat species
Table of Relationships - see how the various cat species are related and have evolved over time.
Timeline - an historic time-line of the 'big cat' species
Prehistoric Cats - find out more about the ancestors of today's wild cat species.
'Sabre-tooth' cats - there is a common misconception the the fabled 'Sabre-tooth Tiger' of prehistoric times was a direct ancestor of the modern tiger - find out more