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Big Cats - The Cat - Family Felidae

( Originally Published 1936 )

The largest and most important group of the Carnivora is the Cat family, all the members of which are essentially flesh-eaters, marvellously adapted by nature to prey upon other creatures. They have, in general, short, rounded heads, rather large ears, and on the upper lips stiff bristles, or whiskers, which have bases set in very sensitive nerves and are of great service in going through jungle, or thick under-growth, when they are used as feelers to avoid obstacles. In the lion and many of the larger Cats the pupil of the eye is round, whereas in the smaller species, such as the lynx and the domestic cat, it is linear, and when contracted reduces to a narrow up-right slit in the iris. In all, the pupil can be opened widely, enabling the animals to see well in darkness–a necessity, since they commonly hunt prey by, night.

The Felidae have five toes on the front feet, four on the hind ones, all armed with strong "retractile claws "—that is, claws that when not in use are drawn back by the ligaments into horny sheaths that protect them from wear. When the animal springs upon its prey, or becomes excited, they are thrust forward, ready to be used as weapons of offence or defence. One great benefit derived from this power of retraction is that it enables the animal to approach its prey noiselessly, the sharp points being raised from the ground in walking. The upper surface of the tongue is covered with small hook-like projections by means of which every particle of flesh can be scraped from the bones of the creatures upon which it feeds. The tail is long, except in the case of the lynxes, and that of the lion bears a tuft, or ball of hair, at the end. The skin is loosely attached over the whole body, and the muscular development is of very high order, all motions being executed with ease and grace, and, on occasion, with astonishing rapidity.

The Felidae are among the most beautiful animals in existence. All have more or less long, soft fur, usually bearing spotted or striped markings. The lion, the puma, the jaguarondi, and the caracal, how-ever, are monotone in colour, or nearly so, though the young of the lion and the puma are spotted, and even upon the adult lion faint spots are visible just under the elbows on the front legs.

The various species differ little from each other in disposition and general characteristics. We may be sure that the actions of the common house-cat are those of all its relatives—such motions as " washing " the face, watching for prey, crouching and springing, being done by all this great family in precisely the same way. They approach their prey by stealth, keeping concealed as much as possible until they can reach their intended victims at a single bound, which is often of extraordinary length. In this stealthy character they are unlike other groups of the Carnivora, many of which will, if necessary, openly follow a scent for miles in order to overtake their prey.

The cats are spread over a wide range of country, being found as far north as Siberia and Canada and in the extreme south of Africa and South America.

Remains of fossil cats have been discovered in nearly all parts of the world. One species, in particular, called Smilodon, was about the size of a lion and had a very short tail like a lynx. The fore paws, however, were much larger and heavier than those of any lion, and the upper canine teeth were very long and flattened into a sabre-like form—hence the name, Sabre-Tooth Tiger. These teeth were so large that they passed outside of the mouth, somewhat like the tusks of a walrus, and it is supposed that they were used to pierce the thick hide of the gigantic ground sloths of the period in which they lived. The Sabre-Tooth Tiger would leap upon these creatures, burying its fangs in the tough hide, and by a tearing, ripping motion, cut through into the flesh.

Besides this large and formidable cat, the fossil remains of others have been found, some resembling leopards in proportions, but nearly all having canine teeth longer than those of any living forms. From the bones and implements found in caves, it is known that Cave Tigers lived in the time of primitive man, and they were probably his most dreaded foes.

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