All the species of wild cat have evolved from a distant, but common ancestory. Today tracing the links between the various forms and species can be both problematic and intreging – however to sustain the worlds populations of wildcat species, we must have a clear understanding of the genetic links and relationships in order to help manage breeding programmes and conservation efforts.
For many years zoologists and taxonomists have argued over the exact classification of the feline species. In looking at the phylogony, which is the study of the evolutionary development and history of a species, modern wild cat ancestry can be traced back well over 2 million years.
From fossil remains of the various species of big cat – lion, tiger, leopard and jaguar – it has been possible to piece together an overview of the various relationships between today’s cat species. A common, but distant ancestry leave all wild cat species with fundamental similarities. However through evolutionary adaptation, marked differences now distinguish one species from another – those built for speed over land and others built for agility in the tree tops – those who hunt by day and those who are nocturnal in pursuit of their prey.
In broad terms the position of the family Felidae within the traditional classification system is well established, but the more detailed structuring of phylogenetic relationships of the felid species is much less certain. Modern methods of molecular study have bought to light many relationships which in the past have been hard to support using the more traditional methods of morphological and behavioural study.
Today the need to establish true and specific relationships between the members of the family Felidae is of utmost importance. To sustain the worlds populations of wildcat species, biologists, zoologists and conservationist must have a clear understanding of the genetic links and relationships in order to help manage breeding programmes and conservation efforts.
Wild Cat Species and Distribution
The 36 species of the wild cat family are spread across most of the globe excluding the continents of Antarctica and Australia and some island groups.
Many species are to be found in similar habitats straddling several continents such as the Leopard which ranges from the southern tip of Africa, across Asia to China and various the species of Wildcat, which can be found in Europe, Africa, the Middle east and Asia.
The majority of species however, 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.
In attempting to classify the worlds species of wild cat, modern day research is uncovering interesting facts regarding the relationship between individual species separated today by continents and oceans. In distant history the world map of wild cat distribution looked vastly different. A similarity in appearance between the New World Jaguar and the Leopard can be explained by a common ancestry – it is now thought that jaguars evolved in Asia and spread across to the Americas via the northern land bridge between the two continents. In a similar way, ancient species of lion and cheetah once roamed the New World continents.