Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 53.djvu/364

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been validated.




OF the family of cats, the Felidæ of naturalists, there are now in existence upon the earth about fifty distinct species, nearly all of which are so closely allied to each other that they have received the common designation of Felis. Our domestic cat, whose wild origin is lost in history, is a good representative of the family and one of its smallest members. The Asiatic tiger, the largest and most powerful of all, rarely reaches a length of eleven feet, while the African lion falls not far behind in size and prowess.

The habits of all these fifty species are much alike. With the exception of a fish-eating Indian species, they all obtain their food, which consists of the flesh of other animals, by stealth. For this reason they are all, with the exception of the African lion, inhabitants of forests and jungles, rarely frequenting the open plains, where concealment is less easy. No other living animals are so perfectly adapted for carnivorous habits as are they: their teeth are sharp and cutting; their claws long and pointed, and ensheathed when at rest; their body is lithe and flexible. Their intelligence, while perhaps not equal to that possessed by the other great carnivorous family, the dogs, is by no means of an inferior order.

These fifty living species, however, comprise but a small proportion of all those that have lived in the past. More than that number of extinct cats are already known to scientific men, and many others must have lived of which we yet have no knowledge, and perhaps never may. Those fossil cats have been discovered in nearly all of the great regions of the world where their descendants now live. In Australia and Madagascar they have apparently never lived, because these regions were separated from the mainlands long before cats came into existence, and they have never found an opportunity to reach them since. The oldest cats are known from Europe and North America, making their appearance in geological history, so far as we now know, at nearly the same time. In South America they appeared much later.

In no continent have the extinct cats been found in greater variety and abundance than in the United States, and it is not improbable that here is the real birthplace of the family. More than twenty-five species have already been discovered in the United States, and doubtless not a few others will yet be added to the list. The oldest are from the Bad Lands of South Dakota and Wyoming, while others, only a little more recent, are from Oregon. Remains of those which lived much later have been discovered in