How many kinds (species) of small cats are there?

In the question above, which concerns the small wild cat species, we need to include the domestic cat. Taxonomists – scientists who like to classify species – include the domestic cat in their list of small wild cat species because the domestic cat is wild at heart being very similar, in fact fundamentally identical, to their wild cat ancestor except for the intervening 10,000 years of domestication, which has made them quite sociable.

Representing the taxonomy (the classification) of the wild cat species
Representing the taxonomy (the classification) of the wild cat species. Image by MikeB
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But scientists have struggled over the past 200 years to classify with precision the small cats. And one can’t be critical because back in the day they were reliant on the appearance of cats. They’ve since discovered that the appearance of the same species of wild cat can vary across its geographical distribution and even seasonally. This muddied the water of classification resulting in many more species than were actually present in reality.

Today, it is generally agreed that there are 36 species of wild cats. When you add in the domestic cat, as they do, the number is 37. Of these 30 are small cats. Note: you will still see different opinions on the number of small cat species today. My information is from a small wild cat specialist: Dr Jim Sanderson.

In 1758, Linnaeus (Carl von Linné) gave Latin, scientific names, to the Eurasian lynx, domestic cat, ocelot, jaguar, leopard, tiger and lion. And since that date, the number of wild cat species recognised by the experts has ranged from about 20 to more than 50. But over that period of time there has been no change in the number of wild cat species. In fact, there’s been no change for the past 200,000 years.

And as hinted at in the first paragraph, the confusion about the number of wild cat species kicked off because the experts were still discovering new species in the late 1800s. And some species had many different scientific names.

Each time a “new species” was discovered they were given a new name and the numbers mounted. An added problem was that there were few actual specimens to observe, measure and analyse. The small wild cats are secretive and hard to spot. The same species was discovered in different places and at these new places they were given a new name and designated a new species.

And as also mentioned, similar individual wild cats with different coat colours and spot patterns were thought of as different species at the time because of a lack of knowledge.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s the last new wild cat species were discovered and named. At this time, they realised that the same species could have different coat colours and markings.

Scientists were confused right into the late 1980s about small wild cat species taxonomy. To an outsider it looks as if the scientists were sloppy but they weren’t. It was a difficult task with the identification of some species being extremely difficult.

Of course, DNA analysis has helped tremendously by precluding a dependence on appearance only which is unreliable.

Individual cat species can have variations in tail length, coat colour – from for instance light gray to deep chestnut brown – and spot patterns which may be different on each side of the body and body weight which may vary depending upon how far from the equator they live.

Some wild cat species have enormous ranges such as the much larger mountain lion (puma). Their size varies from the north where they are the biggest to the south where they are smaller. The same goes for the biggest cat of all, the tiger with the Siberian tiger being the biggest and the Sumatran tiger being the smallest, living in a much hotter climate with smaller prey animals and with a lowered propensity to lose body heat.

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