When you think of a cat, do you simply think of the typical house cat playing in the corner with a ball of yarn, or do you think of a ferocious 530 lb lion going in for the kill? By any chance do you think of a hyena? A mongoose? Other civets? Believe it or not, these are all a part of the cat family!


So what makes a cat different from, for example, a member of the “bearlike” family, which consists of raccoons, bears, dogs, and weasels? With today’s present technology, we can instantly answer this with genetic tests to find very unique DNA between these two orders of carnivores! Both nuclear and mitochondrial DNA (DNA passed ONLY through the MOTHER) provide supporting evidence that cats are a distinct groups that descended from a common ancestor. Furthermore, for those who like a good solid piece of evidence that they can easily visualize: there is a little bone found in the inner ear of only cats and not in any “bearlike” animals.


Another cool feature of all cats is “eyeshine”. Have you ever passed a cat at night and shone even a faint amount of light into its eyes? That eerie reflection you get back out is eyeshine. What happens is that at night, the cat is able to illuminate their sight by readily adapting their iris muscles and reflecting the image across a reflecting layer in the eye. Light passes through the receptor layer of the eye without being absorbed and is reflected back this second time to stimulate receptors. This second reflection is that spooky eyeshine!


All cats have highly branched nerves that allow them to have incredible reflexes. For example, when a cat is falling, the segment of the inner, known as the vestibular apparatus, regulates the animal’s balance while coordinating visual cues to determine the optimal orientation of the cat as it approaches the ground. Once the information is synthesized, the cat automatically reorganizes its neck into a horizontal position, and the body unconsciously realigns itself after the neck’s orientation. So now if you ever see a cat land gracefully on its feet, now you’ll now know precisely why! (And you won’t feel as badly when you fall like a clutz, as I so often do…)


While cats are not only the most carnivorous of the order Carnivora, ALL WILD felids are also listed as “threatened”.  How is it that the top of the food chain could be so threatened? In broad terms, it’s been caused by habitat loss, hunting and depredation, and poaching. If you are thinking “human-involvement” as the common underlying theme among all the actions above, then you are “cooking with gas”, as they say.


Some of these kitties are on their way to extinction, and should it happen, it will not be the first time. At the end of the last Ice Age (~20,000-10,000 years ago) humans ran a few other animals into extinction from over-hunting including the mammoth and the saber-tooth tiger.


We can’t let this happen with the wild cats left. The best way to start combating their extinction is to learn and understand them.


That said, ready to go back to Africa?

Gabby Wild is thinking, “Should I really be smiling in front of these skulls?” Circle of life, it seems- and the cats seemed to have won!