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History of Wild Cats of the World

By: C.M.Shorter

By: C.M.Shorter

Scientific records have revealed the earliest fossil records of modern felid ancestors evolved from a time period lineage of less that 10 million years ago. Fossil discoveries for the Small Cats (genus Felis) are very rare making it difficult to outline early genetic relationships between the feline species. The exception being those of the modern day Lynx. Descendants of the modern day Lynx first appeared around 4 million years ago.

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Most scientists concur with the widely believed theory that the Jaguar and the Leopard share a common ancestry from Eurasia a little over 2 million years ago. From their Eurasian origin the Leopard traveled west into Europe and the Jaguar traveled east, crossing the Bering land bridge into North America. Early Jaguars that inhabited the Americas were both larger and longer legged that our present day modern species.

Tigers were thought to have Asian descent originating from both Central Asia and China spreading out east and west to span territories covering most of Asia. They formerly ranged from the Caspian Sea to the far eastern Tundra of Russia. Three of our modern sub-species being the Bali, Caspian and Javan Tigers have now been officially declared extinct. Today's modern tiger found in northern China is believed to be the closest direct descendant of the earliest forms of their species.

The Lion appeared on the scene much more recently than other members of the genus Panthera with the earliest known records dating back only 750,000 years ago with origin from Western Africa. Lions evolved and spread northward into Europe and Asia, where the Cave Lion and Tuscany Lion were found in the Balkans and Northern Italy respectively. Our ancestral lion also crossed over from Asia into North America with the American Lion known to have spread as far south as Peru according to fossil records. Unfortunately, the Barbary Lion and Cape Lions have now become extinct.

The Cheetah was also believed to inhabit North America as far back as 2 1/2 million years ago where they remained until just as recently as 12,000 years ago. The early Cheetah, acinonyx pardinensis found in Europe resembled our modern day Cheetah with the exception of being quite noticeably larger.

Although our many Wild Cat species are found in similar habitats straddling several continents such as the Leopard with a range from the tip of Africa, across Asia and into China, the majority of these Wild Cat species are indigenous to only one continent. The great natural barrier of the Atlantic Ocean also serves to divide the ‘New World’ species from the ‘Old World’ - with the exception of the Lynx, which can be found as distinct sub-species in both North America and Eurasia.

Many interesting facts are being uncovered regarding the present day relationship of individual species separated by continents and oceans. Now a similarity in the 'New World' Jaguar and Leopard can be explained by common ancestry just as science has proven the ancient species of Lion and Cheetah once roamed the 'New World' continents.

The table on the following page represents the historic genetic links between today's felid species illustrating the links between the Neofelid and Palaeofelid ancestry. One of the best known historic species was the Sabre-Tooth known as the Smilodon. The Smilodon was probably about the size of an average Lion, equipped with canines of extreme length. The first conceived notion many people conjure up is assuming a killer "death bite" when viewing the skeleton of this Sabre-Tooth tiger. Actually scientists believe that the Smilodon inflicted multiple stabbing body wounds resulting in their prey victim bleeding to death rather than death by delivery of a throat or neck bite in order protect these immense canines. There is evidence that the Sabre-Toothed Tiger was a social animal, with a hunting style similar to the group method used by our modern day Lions. Modern day Tigers share a distant common ancestry with the Sabre-Toothed Tiger of prehistoric times but this Neofelid species became extinct long before the present day Tiger evolved.

Sabre-Tooth Tiger Fangs
Sabre-Tooth Tiger Fangs Sabre-Tooth Tiger Fangs

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