National Geographic : 1997 Jun
"What man has done to poor old Felis catus." Tedford shakes his head. "Even so," he sighs, "under the skin, they're all alike." Be it 600-pound Siberian tiger, 4-pound Central American oncilla, 10-pound Persian, or even the long-extinct Proailurusin the Museum of Natural History's collection, the template remains the same. Just how did Proailurusend up as the purring Persian in Lise's lap? Among other things, it took time and changes in environ ment. Think of the cat family as a river sys tem with Proailurus,the prototype, the headwaters. Millions of years unfold. Climate turns colder, drier. Forest changes to grass land. Cats move from trees to plains. With room to roam and grass to eat, herbivores in crease in size. So do their predators, the cats. Cats cloak themselves to blend into their surroundings. Mottled coats meld into forest shadow. Solid coats blend into open country. Stripes are perfect camouflage for the vertical shadows cast by tall grass. Cats are stalkers, lying in ambush. Natural selection refined the predatory habits of some, making them capa ble of great bursts of speed. As the climatic cooldown continues and the Miocene proceeds, the flow of feline evo lution divides into two branches. One branch becomes the big-toothed cats like Smilodon seemingly evolutionary dead ends. The other becomes the success-story cats-those that evolve into Lise's Persian, Josef the lion, and the Bengal tiger stalking an elephant calf in the suddenly silent Himalayan forest. SCONFESSION. I do not, and never have, owned a cat. I can't stand the rejec tion, that "Can I get back to you?" attitude. Give me the wet, licking love of a dog. I don't care for cats, but I admire their grace. One day Jaromir Malek, an Egyptologist at the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University If it shopped insteadof hunted, a big cat would run up quite a grocery bill. Lone tigers have been observed consuming 60 to 80 pounds of meat in a night. Unlike other carnivores-bears,for ex ample-that can survive on plants when meat is scarce, wild cats must capture prey or go hungry.