“The cat does not caress us, it caresses itself against us.”
Antoine de Rivarol
Domestic cats are the most recent and ubiquitous species of a cat family whose members are as ubiquitous as they are powerful; They live wild on every continent except Australia and Antarctica, and are found at the top of the food chain on all of them. They are incredibly diverse, thriving in almost any environment, from deserts and jungles to the frozen forests of the north, with a success that can only be attributed to evolutionary advantage gained over millions of years in the early Cenozoic.
Cats belong to the order Carnivora, a subclass of carnivorous terrestrial mammals that comprises only two suborders, whose origin dates back to the Carnivoramorpha branch, climbing carnivores that evolved 66 million years ago (MdA), before the disappearance of the great dinosaurs. Cladistics (part of biology that studies the evolutionary interactions of species) divides Carnivora into only two subclasses, Caniformia, which includes wolves, bears, and derivatives; and Feliformia, which includes cats, hyenas (yes, they’re closer to cats than dogs, amazing) and their relatives. Both subclasses are mainly characterized by having teeth that evolved to dismember and tear the flesh and bones of their prey, the carnassials, but little else.
The first caniforms had a more terrestrial and wandering lifestyle, unlike the feliforms, which basically lived by climbing trees thanks to the retractable claws that the caniforms do not have; this is perhaps the cause of the strictly carnivorous diet of felines, while caniforms have always been more omnivorous. Feliformia is made up of ten families (three of them extinct), and all cats belong to the Felidae family, made up of about forty species of cats, many of them in danger of extinction due to the life and work of the human species.
The first “real” feline that we know of is Proaiulurus, a cat of about 10 to 12 kilos that lived between 25 and 30 Ma ago, between the Oligocene and Miocene. Comparing its fossil remains with the skeleton of a modern lynx we can see the amazing similarities between two species so far apart in time, both species with elongated, strong and flexible bodies as well as rather short legs and very large eyes. But after Proailurus and for seven million years there does not seem to be any other cat in the fossil record, at least according to the latest discoveries. This period of about seven MdA is known as “The gap of the cats” and there are several theories about it, but the causes can be multiple, from climatic changes to hyperspecialization in their diet.
But the cats are back, and they’re back in style. Pseudaelurus is the first species of cat to appear in the fossil record after Proailurus, and is thought by many scientists to be its direct descendant, although the time between the two species suggests at least one other intermediate that we have yet to find. Pseudaelurus is the ancestor of all modern cats, large and small, as well as other now extinct families such as Machairodontinae, the subfamily to which the large saber-toothed cats such as Smilodon and Meganterius belonged, two truly amazing species, but they are just a more paragraph in the long history of the cat lineage.