How many species of wild cat are there?

How many species of wild cat are there?

by Michael

Jaguarundi - just about classified as a cat! If it was not there would be 35 wild cat species. Photo: by siwild (Flickr)

Jaguarundi - just about classified as a cat! If it was not there would be 35 wild cat species. Photo: by siwild (Flickr)

How many species of wild cat are there? The current answer is thirty-six (36). That is the consensus at Feb 2012. I say that because taxonomy, the classification of things, is constantly evolving in relation to the wild cat species and other species.

This is due to new science and new ideas. At one time there were far more subspecies of wild cat than there are now for instance.

Typical examples are the puma and leopard. They are found over very large ranges. The leopard's range extends from the African continent to East Asia. The habitat in which the leopard lives varies considerably over this range. That variation in habitat results in a variation in available prey and as a consequence the size of the leopard is gradually altered to reflect the size of its prey. These size differences at one time resulted in scientists deciding that there were different species.

People should recognize too that coat color and type - I am thinking of white tigers - does not make a wildcat a different species. It does not even make the cat a different subspecies. It is simply a different coat color.

The king cheetah coat morph is another example. This cheetah type is not a subspecies. At one time it was considered a subspecies.

In general there is a shrinking in the number of subspecies since the latter part of the 1800s due to better knowledge and assessment.

That said, classification of species is not entirely objective. People decide what the classification will be. In other words scientists decide how fine a difference between types of leopard (for example) there needs to be to call the cat a subspecies. It is a question of choice ultimately.

Some wild cats have caused scratching of scientific heads in regards to classification. The classic example is the slightly strange looking jaguarundi. This cat is wessel or otter-like. It was some time before the scientists placed the jaguarundi into the felidae family. You can see and read about the jaguarundi on this page: Jaguarundi Photograph.

It is probably fair to say that the 36 species of wildcat will be the number for some considerable time or until one or two or more become extinct, which is a distinct possibility over the forthcoming 100 years.


Associated page: Wild cat lineages

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