National Geographic : 1997 Jun
presence of the perfect predator-the emblem of power and death. In the jungle-and every where else-the lion and his tribe are king. Then there is the feline you and I are most likely to meet: the house cat, "an indepen dent, wild little panther," one writer called it. Beloved if standoffish companion to mil lions of humans the world over, the domestic cat came late in the evolutionary cycle but is now the aloof emperor of the cat world, far outnumbering its larger cousins, accepting with cool grace -sometimes even disdain the pampering of owners. Cats also spin a story about how creatures adapt to the world they live in. Most land scapes hold wild cats, indigenous to every continent except Australia and Antarctica. They live in forests, plains, mountains, deserts, snowy steppes. The margay, a small spotted cat of Central and South America, has gymnast-like limbs suited to a life of tree climbing in the rain forest. The gray-white coat of the snow leopard melts perfectly into rocky highlands from Siberia through the Himalaya. The slightly webbed front toes of the fishing cat help it dive for prey in the rivers of tropical Asia. The clouded leopard, once found only in Asia's pristine forests, has turned up in habitat damaged by overgrazing and logging. It has adapted to the careless hand of man. So too the leopard's spots enable it to van ish into the dappled light and shade of heavy forest. To the biologist the leopard's spots embody the principle of natural selection that process of genetic winnowing through millennia. To Rudyard Kipling the leopard of his Just So Stories "goes into spots" with the help of the Ethiopian, who presses his fingers on the leopard's skin and leaves "five little black marks, all close together." What you believe depends on your prefer ence for poetry or science. Happily, with cats, there is room for both. Let's see how a cat works. Just what Nearly as loud as a rock band, the roaringmale lion needs neither microphonenor amplifier to proclaimhis dominance to the borders of his kingdom. The subtle rumble of a house cat's purr can comfort kittens even before their ears are developed enough to hear it.