Wikijunior:Big Cats/Fossil History

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Carnivores are meat eaters. Among the mammals, one entire order is noted for this: Carnivora, which including all cats big and small as well as all hyenas, bears, seals, otters, and animals resembling weasels, wolves, mongooses, and raccoons. Except for the giant panda, all members of Carnivora are deadly hunters. That includes dogs, even if they are well-behaved. All are strong, powerful, intelligent, cunning, agile animals with sharp teeth and claws. All but the panda are fast enough to catch prey.

All living members of Carnivora are related to each other, having descended from the ancestor Miacis, a small meat-eating weasel-like tree climber which lived between 36 million to 58 million years ago, or the Eocene period, in North America, Europe and Asia. It had a larger brain capacity than other carnivores of its day, which is probably why it survived to become the father of all modern carnivores.

Not all carnivorous animals are members of Carnivora. Dolphins and whales are formidable hunters and voracious eaters of meat (typically fish), but they are no closer to being cats than are the Great Apes that eat meat (especially humans, chimpanzees, and baboons). Neither are small mammals called Insectivora (like shrews) that feed on insects and other tiny creatures.

How old is Family Felidae?

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The fossil record of Family Felidae extends to the Late Eocene, 34 million years ago. If each of those years lasted a second, the Cat Family would have been around for roughly one year and five weeks. By comparison, the Great Pyramid at Giza would have been around for only 83 minutes, and the Internet for less than 15 seconds (as of 2008). The first known feline was Aelurogale. Its descendent, Proailurus, gave rise to the major branches of the cat family we see today as well as the two sabre-toothed cat lines. Proailurus lived in Europe from 30-20 million years ago.

Notable fossil cats

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  • Smilodon - Smilodon fatalis and others - Often called the "Sabre-toothed Tiger" though it is not a tiger, and "Sabre-toothed Cat" though it was not the only line of cats with sabre teeth. The most widely recognized of the fossil cats, it lived in North and South America from 3 million to 10,000 years ago. A fully grown Smilodon weighed about 450 pounds (203 kg) and had fangs 7 inches (17 cm) long that were used to subdue its large prey.
  • The American Lion - Panthera atrox - It lived from 25,000 years ago to 10,000 years ago in North America. In life, this cat was about 1/4 larger than the African lion, even bigger than the Siberian tiger. The average male at 11.5 feet (3.5 m) in length would have averaged about 520 pounds (235 kg). Females were smaller, averaging about 385 pounds (175 kg). Fossil evidence indicates it had the most highly developed brain of any known cat.
  • The Eurasian Cave Lion - Panthera spelaea - It lived from 30,000 years ago to 10,000 years ago from as far west as England to as far east as Siberia. The largest cat that ever lived, it was 25% larger than the African lion and even bigger than the American Lion. Ancient cave paintings and carvings indicate this cat had faint stripes, a hint of a mane in some males, tufted tails, and protruding ears.
  • Miracinonyx - Miracinonyx trumani and others - Sometimes referred to as the "American Cheetah," it is remarkably cheetah like and relied upon the same sprinting tactic to overtake its prey. It is thought to have a common ancestor with the Puma. Miracinonyx lived from 3 million to 10,000 years ago in the prairies and open plains of North America where it specialized in hunting newly-evolved swift herbivores such as the Pronghorn.

Cats and humans in history

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Ancient Egyptian statue of a cat

For many years the domestic cat was described as a separate species from all other cats, Felis catus. It is now thought to be a subspecies (slight variation) of the Wildcat (Felis sylvestris) and is given the name Felis sylvestris catus. Archeological evidence shows a relationship between man and cat for the past 8,000 years. The most unusual relationship existed among the Ancient Egyptians who considered cats as children of the goddess Bast. When a cat died, family members showed grief by shaving off their eyebrows, and cats were routinely mummified and laid to rest with great reverence.

Certain other cats have been kept over the years for different reasons, but these relationships have never been maintained long enough to result in true domestication. The proper term for cats such as lions or cheetahs that accept human companionship is "human socialized". This indicates that these animals still possess their entire range of wild instincts, which makes properly and safely handling them more of a challenge. There are paintings and engravings of ancient rulers with big cats seated near their throne. Many people kept cheetahs for hunting swift prey.

Certain fossil species such as Smilodon, the Cave Lion and the American Lion were hunted by early humans, who may have contributed to their extinction. Hopefully no future scholars will find us responsible for the disappearance of more splendid animals.

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