16 facts about the ancestors of the cat

Here are 16 succinctly summarised facts about the ancestors of today’s cat. It is all about evolution over eons. Today’s domestic cat is a marvel of this evolutionary process which has taken tens of millions of years.

Pseudaelurus - the precursor of today's modern cat family
Pseudaelurus – the precursor of today’s modern cat family. This is an artist’s depiction. We don’t know how they looked in any detail. Image: MikeB based on images available in the public domain.
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  1. All predator animals come from the same roots including the cat family.
  2. The first mammals on the planet were small and with limited intellectual abilities but over millions of years primitive cats evolved along the lines of Darwin’s theory of evolution.
  3. They adapted to climate, competition from other carnivores and available prey. Some adaptations ultimately failed and recurred as the environment changed.
  4. Today’s modern cat species did not evolve in a straightforward process. There have been numerous types of “proto-cats”. The word “proto” means primitive or original. Some failed the evolutionary process.
  5. There is disagreement about the evolution of the cat but there is some common knowledge; there is consensus about the broad picture. There are many dead ends one of which is the well-known sabre-toothed cats (Smilodon).
  6. The evidence that we have about these very early species of cat has been gleaned from fragments of ancient bone and teeth. However, the evidence available does not include their fur and their skin glands. Knowing about their skin glands would tell scientists whether these early mammals sweated or were able to manufacture milk for their young.
  7. One early pre-cat carnivore lived 53-60 million years ago. These were the creodonts. They were quite small at about 12 inches to the shoulder and had thick necks and long bodies in relation to their leg length. All of today’s carnivores evolved from creodonts.
  8. Another early, what I would call pre-cat, animal from 60 million years ago were the miacids. They survived the creodonts. There were twice the size of creodonts with longer legs and slender heads.
  9. Moving forward to about 20 million years ago, cat-like carnivores had evolved including the Pseudaelurus which looked like the modern cat. They are considered to be the first members of the modern cat family. Within this group there were larger and smaller subspecies. They were agile and light and varied in size between the size of today’s mountain lion (puma) at around 100 kilograms to the lynx at around 29 kilograms. They were larger than miacids and had anatomy much like today’s cats with flexible shoulder blades, spines and a tail. It is believed that they almost walked on their toes i.e. they were almost digitigrades rather than plantigrades. Digitigrades can stalk prey more stealthily than plantigrades and are therefore more successful. They lived in the open plains in North America and Europe.
  10. Out of the Pseudaelurus group of early cats emerged the direct ancestors of the modern family of cats with the scientific name Felidae. Other branches of early cat became dead ends such as Smilodon. This particular group of cat became extinct not that long ago at about 10,000 years ago. They survived in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas.
  11. It is believed that the direct ancestor of the day’s species of wild cat called the ‘wildcats’ lived in Europe about 12 million years ago. They’ve been labelled Felis lunensis. It is believed that they had a spotted tabby coat.
  12. To put the timescale into perspective, the dinosaurs died out about 65-70 million years ago. Therefore, the pre-cat species referred to above evolved millions of years after the last dinosaurs roamed the planet.
  13. The spread of the cat across the globe depended upon whether there were land bridges between the various continents at that time. The cat family evolved in Eurasia and North America. South America moved north to link up with North America which allowed the evolving cats to travel to South America.
  14. New Zealand, New Guinea and Australia split off from a major landmass called Gondwanaland about 85 million years ago. This was long before the cats evolved. Being cut off, animals evolved in isolation from the rest of the world. Evolving cats in Asia did not have the opportunity to use a land bridge to find their way to the Australian continent. In the absence of true cats, a marsupial evolved namely the tiger cat and it has become one of Tasmania’s small native predators
  15. Tigers and lions split from their Panthera ancestors around 4 million years ago and thereafter, lions lived not just in Africa but in Europe, throughout south-eastern Asia and across Siberia and also throughout North and Central America all the way down to South America. They were ubiquitous on the planet. All the more reason to mourn their near extinction today. Click this for the history of the big cats.
  16. The jaguars first existed around 3 million years ago and they lived throughout the Americas, the island of Java, Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, western and central Europe. A far cry from their distribution today.

RELATED: Domestic Cat History

Cats evolved from a fierce sabre-toothed predator that prowled North America 42 million years ago, according to new research
Cats evolved from a fierce sabre-toothed predator that prowled North America 42 million years ago, according to new research. San Diego Natural History Museum SWNS.
Sabre-toothed cats endurance hunting in packs in ancient times
Sabre-toothed cats endurance hunting in packs in ancient times. Illustration by University of Copenhagen.

RELATED: Sabre-toothed cats genetically suited to endurance hunting

Below are some more pages on cat history.

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