Top Ten Cats: An Introduction

Being completely subjective these are my #1 cats, my own cat, who passed away last year. Rest in Purrs my lovely Smoozebean, and very small in the top left is a yellow-and-red framed photo of my old cat Sylvester. (Credit: Smooze and Sylvester)

Content Warning: There are gifs of animals hunting animals.

Firstly I would just like to say;

LIFE
DOMAIN
KINGDOM
PHYLUM
CLASS
ORDER
FAMILY
GENUS
SPECIES

What does that mean? It is the basic scheme of modern scientific classification of organisms. I will use some of these terms below, some of them are debated, the only thing drunker and more pedantic than evolution is biologists, now let’s move on.

What are cats? Evolutionarily they’re caught somewhere between a switchblade and a teddy bear. Are they even real, or are they just a meme made up by the internet? It is hard to tell.

Well, it’s not. Because we have genome sequencing and all fancy-pants stuff like that.

Short aside, it might seem like an amazing thing to do but genetically modifying a living organism is actually incredibly dull. Even amplifying DNA like they are doing for the Covid tests – via PCR or ‘polymerase chain reaction’ – sounds like things people fire lasers and fight you for but it’s just spinning shit round in a centrifuge and adding some chemicals that will probably give you cancer if you spill them on your hands.

Cats are more than just a 2019 horror film based upon an insipid Andrew Lloyd Webber musical based upon an etherised fever dream of T.S. Eliot. They are members of the kingdom of animals.

Specifically they are a carnivore.

Now I know language is a very fluid thing but in biology when we say something is a carnivore we don’t mean it eats meat. Humans, for example, are not carnivores, even though they eat meat.

No, carnivores are a specific ‘order’ of the ‘class’ of life known as mammals. It’s all a classification thing, maybe I’ll teach it to you properly one day once I’ve gotten over the subtle, lingering trauma of having to learn it for exams as an undergrad only to completely forget it later, either way it’s why I did the intro I did so scroll back to the top for my cheat sheet (added bonus, you get to look at my Smoozy again!).

The order Carnivora – to give it its wanky scientific name – is divided into two sub-orders, the Feliformia – cat-likes; and Caniformia  – dog-likes.

Needless to say, cats are in the cat-like group! Specifically they are in the family Felidae, referred to as felids.

Mandatory kitten tax. Not my Smooze as a baby, she was taken in as a stray. This is just a cute little black and white kitten. (Credit Marko Milivojevic)

You might think, because prehistoric cats like the sabre-tooth cats, are associated with humans they are a relatively recent group but evidence of felids has been found dating back around 30-odd million years.

To put that in perspective the earliest hominid (that is the biological family of great apes to which we humans, the genus homo, belong) ancestor is likely around 20-25 million years old.

So cats are older than great apes, therefore they are better. This is scientifically debated and might just because I find cats so irresistibly cute, apes less so.

They have come in many different shapes, sizes and forms but nowadays there are two main types; big cats and small cats.

Now let me help you with some of this incredibly technical scientific language here.

Big cats are generally, but not necessarily, big.

Small cats – you won’t believe this! – are generally, but not necessarily small.

Let me explain – the ‘big cats’ generally refers to the genus Panthera, or at least the sub-family Pantherinae, where species like lions and tigers dwell. But so does the snow-leopard which is not strictly speaking huge.

The ‘small cats’ generally refers to the sub-family Felinae, which has a few genera (plural of genus) in it, including some lynx families, some of which can be quite big. Say, equivalent to the size of a snow-leopard.

If you want to know one of the key reasons I ended up losing patience with biology it’s because there are people who make it their career’s work to argue what constitutes a big cat and what constitutes a small cat and – okay – I get it, from an evolutionary point of view, to understand what came from where I recognise the validity in the work. But fuck off.

Now this where I am going to have my felid knowledge tested but to the best of my understanding, excluding the poles; specifically Antarctica, Australia, and other various isolated islands and island chains, cats have, at one point, of their own accord (so before humans domesticated them and distributed them all over the place) been known to have existed everywhere.

Until the great Pleistocene extinction, North America was dominated by the Machairodontinae – the sabre-toothed cats. In fact the creation of the isthmus, the land-bridge, between North and South America, is associated with the inevitable decline of the ‘Terror Birds’ that were previously the dominant predators of South America and one hypothesised reason is that they couldn’t compete with the migration of the cats of North America. I’m getting side-tracked by cat tales.

A drawing of Smilodon populator, the largest known species of the Machairodontinae and possibly one of the largest felids to have ever existed. The bulkier bodies, and sloped-form, almost more hyena-like, are believed to have helped them catch and kill prey significantly larger than them. (Credit: DiBgd)

Obviously Europe, Africa, Asia all had their cat species. Britain even used to have lions, so from the West to the East, North to the South, if it is part of the main land a cat has killed and eaten something there.

Even in some places where cat species didn’t reach, feliforms did. The fossa, made famous by the movie Madagascar, evolved to fill the feline niche on that African island.

There are also cat-like Marsupials (a sort of class-within-a-class of mammals, they don’t gestate their young and give birth they just develop little beans in pouches) in Australia and surrounding islands, e.g. the tiger quoll, as well as the extinct Thylacoleonidae, sometimes referred to as ‘marsupial lions’.

I’m huge on my predators, but anyone who has hit me up on the topic knows there are two biological forms I admire, respect and find attractive (outside of humans) above all others; cats and sharks.

Why? …Toxoplasma gondii?

Possibly, but also for the same reason cats (or cat-like, cat-shaped or cat-style creatures) have existed pretty much across the entire globe at some point in history and sharks have been killing stuff in the sea since before dinosaurs existed.

They have, from my subjective eye, the single most elegant hunting form. Cats for land, sharks for sea. As mentioned before, evolution happens by accident, nothing is ‘designed’ but I genuinely do not think conscious intelligence could design a better aquatic killing machine than the shark. They’re remarkable.

Back to cats, though. The body shape of a cat, the proportions, they change slightly depending on what the cat eats, or how the cat hunts it, but they are just evolutionarily honed, individual killing machines.  Sure there are more efficient predators, but sometimes it’s not just about what you do, or how well you do it, it’s the style and grace you do it with.

Have you ever seen a dog catching a ball out of the air? It’s smooth, efficient, it works but it’s like watching a van deliver a parcel. Have you ever seen a cat catch a bird out of the air? It’s elegant, stylish, graceful and efficient, like if German police caught criminals using Bugattis on the autobahn.

Have you ever seen a video of a dog do a stupid jump? It makes you laugh but it’s not unexpected, is it? Have you ever seen a video of a cat missing a jump? It’s hilarious because cats are so poised and graceful.

A cheetah hunting is one of the most stunningly beautiful acts. It is a dance of natural savagery, a waltz of desperation and fear, arrogance and defiance, the script written on-the-fly before your very eyes. If you claim to enjoy ballet but cannot enjoy watching a cheetah hunt you are nothing but a twat and a liar. They are one and the same.

A clip of a Cheetah hunting a gazelle from the BBC Series Big Cat Diaries (one of my favourites). What you can notice in this clip is the use of the tail as a counterweight, to adjust the fine-balance of the cheetah and aids its constantly rapidly needing to change direction. What you unfortunately miss is the incredible flexibility of the spine when a cheetah is at full sprint. I won’t say too much, Cheetahs will be on the list so I’ll talk more then. (Credit: BBC)

Tigers are powerhouses, I’ve seen a video of a Bengal tiger literally stomping on the head of, and stripping a gharial, a type of crocodile, of its skin in seconds.

Lions are sex-divided gangsters. The big boys don’t fight unless it’s really, REALLY needed, but the ladies hold down the fort with hunting and basic protection. They act intelligently, as one, in a pack. They demonstrate levels of social intelligence generally thought not to exist in cats.

Jaguars are powerful jungle ninjas, and semi-aquatic too, they have no problem with swimming. But they are a ghost in the forest, with such powerful paws and jaws for that quick, clean kill.

Snow-leopards are invisible.

Clouded-leopards are jungle ghosts.

 The black-footed cat is the cutest little thing that’ll rip your hand off.

The fishing cat, would you believe it, loves to fish?

A fishing cat, he swears it was THIS BIG! I love their little rounded ears. (Credit: Kelinahandbasket)

MY GOD I LOVE THEM! They’re a murderers’ row of the most adorable bastards.

How I am going to go through the entire history of cats and pick out the best ten species of them, I don’t know. But that’s what I’m going to try to do.

I’m going to have to go and research cats on the internet. It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it. Wish me luck.

Ready to move on – check out number 10 – The Pallas’ Cat or Manul (Otocolobus manul)

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

26 thoughts on “Top Ten Cats: An Introduction

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: