Where did big cats come from?

We all love cats and it seems the world has gone cat mad. But just how much do we know about where they came from?

The oldest fossil of a cat is called Proailurus (literally meaning ‘first cat’) and is dated as living around 25 million years ago. It was about the size of a bobcat and has no obvious ancestor, appearing with most of cats’ basic adaptations (such as retractable claws) already well developed.

Feline fossils have come under intense scrutiny by scientists over the last 200 years. Records are extensive but the evolutionary history is still poorly understood; it’s extremely difficult to make conclusions based on the small bone fragments available. Despite their far-reaching range, all cats are quite similar and really only differ in size. They have a very similar bone structure and identical teeth despite living in different habitats, a fact that has puzzled scientists and palaeontologists, and further complicated the identification of fossils.

However, unlike most cats, the lion’s history is quite comprehensive. We know the first lions originated in Tanzania, dispersed out of Africa, across Eurasia, and into North America. By around 300,000 years ago, they were found in most of northern and eastern Asia.

The fossil skull of an ancient cave lion, Panthera leo spelaea

It’s estimated that only 24% of modern cat diversity is represented by fossils, leaving large areas unknown and huge gaps in knowledge. This is partly because species living in tropical or wet forests, as many modern wild cats do, tend to have a very poor fossil record.



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