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The family is of quite recent origin: the first fossils are from the Oligocene, 25 million years ago (mya). There are 41 living species, including the domestic cat, and they are monophyletic: all descended from the same ancestor.
Felids tend to have lithe and flexible bodies with muscular limbs. In most species, the tail is a third or a half the length of the body, with some exceptions (the bobcat and margay). The limbs are digitigrade, meaning they walk on their toes. The paws have three soft toe pads and retractible claws (usually). The tongue of felids is covered with horny papillae, which rasp meat from prey and aid in grooming.
The Felidae has three subfamilies:
- †Machairodontinae: sabre-toothed cats.
- Pantherinae: large cats tiger, lion, jaguar, leopard
- Felinae: cougar, cheetah and smaller cats
More examples of felines are the big cats – the lion, tiger, leopard, jaguar, snow leopard, clouded leopard, puma, and cheetah - and other wild cats, for example the lynx, caracal, and bobcat. All felines, also the small pet cat, are predators that can hunt many animals.
The felids evolved in Asia and spread across continents by crossing land bridges. DNA sequence analysis shows that ancient cats evolved into eight main lines. There were at least 10 migrations (in both directions) from continent to continent via the Bering land bridge and Isthmus of Panama. The Panthera genus is the oldest and the Felis genus is the youngest. 60 percent of the modern species of cats developed within the last million years.
The felids' closest relatives are the linsangs, and at one remove the group of civets, hyenas, mongooses, and Madagascar carnivores, with whom they share the Suborder Feliformia. All felid species share a genetic anomaly that prevents them from tasting sweetness.
Genetic research has provided a basis for a more concise classification for the living members of the cat family based on genotypical groupings. Specifically, eight genetic lineages have been identified:
- Lineage 1: Panthera, Uncia, Neofelis
- Lineage 2: Pardofelis, Catopuma
- Lineage 3: Leptailurus, Caracal, Profelis
- Lineage 4: Leopardus
- Lineage 5: Lynx
- Lineage 6: Puma, Acinonyx
- Lineage 7: Prionailurus, Otocolobus
- Lineage 8: Felis
- Subfamily Felinae
- Genus Acinonyx
- Cheetah, Acinonyx jubatus
- Genus Caracal
- Caracal, Caracal caracal
- Genus Catopuma
- Genus Felis
- Genus Leopardus
- Genus Leptailurus
- Serval, Leptailurus serval
- Genus Lynx
- Genus Pardofelis
- Marbled cat, Pardofelis marmorata
- Genus Prionailurus
- Genus Profelis
- African golden cat, Profelis aurata
- Genus Puma
- Puma, Puma concolor
- Genus Acinonyx
- Subfamily Pantherinae
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- Xia, Li (July 2005). "Pseudogenization of a sweet-receptor gene accounts for cats' indifference toward sugar". Public Library of Science 1 (1): e3. . . . http://www.plosgenetics.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pgen.0010003. Retrieved 2008-06-30.
- Johnson WE, Eizirik E, Pecon-Slattery J (January 2006). "The late Miocene radiation of modern Felidae: a genetic assessment". Science 311 (5757): 73–7. . .
- O'Brien SJ, Johnson WE (2005). "Big cat genomics". Annu Rev Genomics Hum Genet 6 (1): 407–29. . .
- Johnson, W. E.; & O'Brien S. J. (1997). Phylogenetic reconstruction of the Felidae using 16S rRNA and NADH-5 mitochondrial genes. J Mol Evol (1997) 44: S98-116. Retrieved on 2009-11-08 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9071018?dopt=Abstract.