You can tell the difference between tree and ground dwelling cats from their morphology

All members of the cat family (Felidae) have an evolutionary desire to move vertically. It is part of their survival skill set but some cat species are described as ‘arboreal’ meaning they live in trees as much or more than living on the ground (terrestrial). Two of these species are the clouded leopard and the margay (some more are listed below). They are very different in size. The clouded leopard is the largest of the ‘small cats’ and better described as a medium-sized cat. The margay is a genuine small cat. In terms of their character both are rather tame and affable.

Clouded leopard and margay are the 2 best-known arboreal cats
Clouded leopard and margay are the 2 best-known arboreal cats. Image: MikeB
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I mean you’ll see pictures of these cats being friendly with humans and even behaving as pets. I wonder if this is to do with their tree-dwelling lifestyles where they are distanced from humans and therefore less directly vulnerable to human persecution. That said they are both vulnerable to deforestation. The clouded leopard has become inbred due to the loss of their habitat which has become fragmented causing small isolate populations which are forced to inbreed.

Here are some anatomical or morphological (physical appearance) traits of the tree-dwelling cats:

Terrestrial animals typically possess relatively shorter and sturdier limbs compared to arboreal animals. This adaptation provides stability and strength necessary for walking or running on the ground. Arboreal animals, on the other hand, tend to have longer limbs that aid in climbing and navigating through trees.

Artificial intelligence (AI) computer Poe.
  • Arboreal cats have large paws.
  • They also have long and sturdy tails for their body size to help with balance.
  • They have stout limbs.
  • The bones are heavier and more robust.

Although not strictly about the skeleton “Terrestrial animals often have curved and robust claws, which are useful for activities like digging, capturing prey, or maintaining traction on the ground. Arboreal animals typically possess sharper and more curved claws that assist in grasping branches and climbing tree trunks.” – Poe

Fossils of the small tree-dwelling wild cats are very rare especially those that contain the necessary information about the tail, paws and foreleg structure.

Other wild cat species in addition to the margay and clouded leopard (2 species) that spend time in trees are but to a lesser extent are the:

  • Ocelet – hunt on the ground, rest in trees and escape to trees
  • Leopard cat – likes forest cover and can be “quite arboreal in their habits”¹
  • African golden cat  – thought to be arboreal but short tail and stocky body indicates otherwise. More needs to be known about this cat.
  • Marbled cat – more arboreal than the average wild cat species.
  • Leopard – we have all seen leopards taking prey into trees and resting in trees.

RELATED: Cats that live in trees.

Domestic cats need to climb like their wild cat ancestors
Domestic cats need to climb like their wild cat ancestors. Image: Catipilla
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