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Senses, Behavior, Evolution And History, Domestic CatsSpecies of big cats

Cats are mammals in the family Felidae of the order Carnivora, which includes all of the carnivores. The highly predatory instincts of species in the cat family are easily seen in domestic cats, for even well-fed individuals will aggressively hunt small mammals and birds.

The cat family includes both large species (jaguar, leopard, lion, and tiger) and small ones (bobcat, lynx, ocelot, and serval). Small species of cats purr but do not roar, whereas big cats roar but do not purr. The reason for this is that the tongue muscles of large cats are attached to a pliable cartilage at the base of the tongue, which allows roaring, while those of small cats are attached to the hyoid bone, which only allows purring.

Most cats have 30 teeth, including large canine and carnassal teeth, but few in their cheek. This arrangement is suited to crushing bones and tearing, cutting, and gripping the flesh of their prey. Their jaws are mostly adapted to vertical movement, and the chewing action is aided by sharp, backward projections on the tongue (known as papillae), which help to grip and manipulate food.

Members of the cat family occur naturally in all parts of the world, except Antarctica, Australia, and New Zealand (although domestic cats have been introduced and are now wild in the latter two places). There are 36 species of cats in four genera. The genus Panthera includes the jaguar, leopard, lion, and tiger. The cheetah is the sole member of the genus Acinonyx, while the clouded leopard is the only species of Neofelis. The puma, lynx, and smaller cats, including the domestic cat, are placed in the genus Felis.

There are eight species of so-called "big cats," which includes the lion (Panthera leo), tiger (P. tigris), leopard (P. pardus), cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus), jaguar (P. onca), snow leopard (Uncia uncia), clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa), and cougar (Puma concolor).

The lion

Lions were once distributed over much of southern Europe, Asia, and Africa. Today, lions are found only in sub-Saharan Africa and in the Gir Forest, a wildlife sanctuary in India. Lions prefer open grassland and savanna to forest, and are also found in the Kalahari Desert. Adult male lions weigh from 300–500 lb (135–225 kg), while females weigh about 300 lb (135 kg). Lions are a light tawny color with black markings on the abdomen, legs, ears, and mane. Lions live up to 15 years, reaching sexual maturity in their third year. Male lions have been observed to kill cubs that they have not fathered.

Lions are the most social of the cats. They live in family groups called a pride, which consists of 4-12 related adult females, their young, and 1-6 adult males. The size of the pride usually reflects the amount of available food: where prey is abundant, lion prides tend to be larger, making them better able to protect their kills from hyenas and other scavengers. Most lion kills are made by the females, while the males defend the pride's territory, which may range from 8 sq mi (20 sq km) to more than 150 sq mi (385 sq km).

The tiger

The tiger is the largest member of the cat family, with males weighing from 400 to 600 lb (180-275 kg) and females 300-350 lb (135-160 kg). Tigers range from a pale yellow to a reddish orange background color (depending on habitat), overlain by vertical stripes. Tigers live in habitats with a dense cover of vegetation, commonly forest and swamps (or forested wetlands) on the Indian subcontinent, southern China, Southeast Asia, and Indonesia. A century ago, tigers commonly inhabited areas as far north as southern Siberia, all of India and Southeast Asia, and regions along the eastern part of China. Today, however, their range is much reduced and fragmented and all eight subspecies of tigers are endangered.

Tigers live a solitary life and systematically protect their territory by marking its boundary with urine, feces, glandular secretions, and scrape marks on trees. Tigers are solitary nocturnal hunters, approaching their prey stealthily in a semi-crouching position. When close enough, the tiger makes a sudden rush for the prey, attacking from the side or the rear. The tiger keeps its hind feet on the ground while using its front paws and jaws to seize its prey by the shoulder or neck. The tiger applies a throat bite that suffocates its victim, which is then carried into cover and consumed.

The leopard

Male leopards weigh about 200 lb (90 kg), with females weighing about half that amount. Leopards are found in sub-Saharan Africa, India, and Southeast Asia. There are also small populations in Arabia and North Africa. Leopards have a distinctive coloring of black spots over a pale brown coat. Their habitat includes tropical rainforest, dry savanna, and cooler mountainous areas.

Leopards feed on a variety of small and medium-sized prey, usually hunting at night by ambush. Leopards use trees as resting places and frequently drag their catch up there for feeding. The number of leopards is declining worldwide due to hunting and habitat destruction resulting from human population pressure.

The cheetah

Cheetahs can reach a speed of up to 70 MPH (112 km/h), and are the fastest animals on land. Cheetahs resemble leopards in having a black spotted pattern over a tawny coat, but are distinguished by a long, lithe body, large black "tear" stripes under their eyes, and a relatively small head. Cheetahs are the only members of the cat family that do not have retractable claws. Cheetahs are solitary hunters, feeding mostly on gazelles and impala. They hunt mainly in the morning and early afternoon, when other big cats are usually sleeping, thereby enabling them to share hunting areas with other large carnivores. Cheetahs are found in North and East Africa, in eastern parts of southern Africa, and in certain areas of the Middle East and South Asia. There is a considerable trade in cheetah skins, and hunting of these animals, together with the loss of habitat, threatens their survival in the wild.

Other big cats

Among the other large cats are the jaguar, snow leopard, and clouded leopard. These cats inhabit forested wilderness, and all are solitary, nocturnal predators. Jaguars are found in Central and South America, while the clouded leopard occurs in Southeast Asia, and the snow leopard at higher elevations in the Himalayas of Central Asia. The clouded leopard and the snow leopard have a rigid hyoid bone in their throat which prevents them from roaring. The black panther is a melanistic (or black) form of the jaguar; its spots are barely discernable within its dark coat. The cougar, also known as the puma or mountain lion, is about the size of a leopard and ranges from western Canada to Argentina. The cougar is found in mountains, plains, deserts, and forests and preys on deer and medium-sized mammals.

The smaller wild cats

Smaller wild cats are native to most areas of the world, except Australasia and Antarctica. Smaller cats are characterized by an inability to roar, retractable claws, and a hairless strip along the front of their nose. Examples of small wild cats are the Eurasian wild cat (Felis sylvestris), the African wild cat (F. lybica), the sand cat (F. margarita) of the Sahara, the African tiger cat (Profelis aurata) of tropical forests, the golden cat (P. temminckii), and Pallas' cat (Otocolobus manul) of central Asia. Medium-sized cats include the African serval (Leptailurus serval) and the caracal or desert lynx (Caracal caracal). Medium-sized cats of the New World include the ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) of South and Central America and the jaguarundi (Herpailurus jaguarundi).

The bobcat or wildcat (Lynx rufus) of North America is colored to blend into the rocky, densely vegetated background of its habitat. Bobcats rely more on hearing and smell than on sight to catch their prey. The lynx (Lynx lynx) lives in cold climates and has long legs and big feet to make trekking through deep snow easier. The Canada lynx (L. canadensis) has long hair and does not have a spotted coat.

The other 26 species of smaller cats live mainly in forest and feed on small prey, such as squirrels and other rodents, hares, small deer, birds, snakes, lizards, fish, and insects. Most species have a spotted or striped coat and usually a rounded head. Small wild cats are either Two cheetahs in Kenya. Photograph by Lew Eatherton. The National Audubon Society Collection/Photo Researchers, Inc. Reproduced by permission. solitary in habit or form small groups, depending on the abundance of the food supply. Most species are hunted for their spotted or striped skin and some are in danger of becoming extinct.

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