There are currently 36 different species of wild cats. The cats, or the Family Felidae, belong to the Order Carnivora - the carnivores.
The modern system of taxonomy using Latin names to describe species was introduced in 1758 by the Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus (1707 - 1778). Few people, for example, would know that the Hibou Grand-Duc, the Uhu, the Gufo Reale, the Stor hornugle, the Oehoe and the Comhachag Mhor are all the same bird Bubo bubo, better known to us as the Eagle Owl.
Such Latin names give a unique label to a species and allow it to be internationally recognisable. Unfortunately, like the species themselves, taxonomy evolves and the classification of the Felidae has been complicated with different authorities using different methods. The most recent revision of cat taxonomy was in 1996, and it is that taxonomy which we use in this site.
Linnaeus originally classified all the cats into a single genus, Felis within the Felidae family. However, there were obviously cats of several broad types and zoologists began to group these together and added new genera in the process. At one point the single genus Felis had diversified into no less than 23 different genera. Many experts believed that the splitting up had gone too far and there was a tendency to regroup. This tendency continued until a few years ago, when most authorities considered that there were just three genera - Felis for all the small cats, Panthera for the big cats (which are defined by their ability to roar) and Acinonyx for the cheetah. More recently, zoologists agreed that the Clouded leopard was intermediate between big and small cats and it was reassigned to the genus which it had previously occupied, Neofelis.
However, this standard taxomony was not universally followed. Many authorities continued to use many different genera and the snow leopard, for example, was classified variously as Panthera or Uncia. In order to remedy the confusion, a revised felid taxonomy was officially agreed to in 1996 at the Felid TAG (Taxonomic Advisory Group) conference and Felid taxonomy was once more radically altered.
The number of species (36) remained unchanged, however some previously recognised species became subspecies and vice versa. The new taxonomy agreed to basically divided the former Felis and Panthera groups into 13 and 4 genera respectively. There are now four genera (7 species) in the Pantherinae subfamily; one genus (one species, the Cheetah) in the Acinonyxchinae subfamily; and 13 genera (28 species) in the Felidae subfamily. The Pantherinae and Acinonyxchinae are the so-called 'Big cats'. Pumas and lynx are members of the subfamily Felidae and is therefore not officially a 'Big Cat'.
Many species are further divided into subspecies, although it is widely accepted that many of these are not valid. The Canadian, Eurasian, and Iberian Lynxes are officially different species, not subspecies. Over 20 subspecies of leopard are recognised including: Panthera pardus japonensis (the Northern Chinese Leopard); Panthera pardus orientalis (the Amur Leopard); and Panthera pardus pardus (the African Leopard). Note that the Clouded Leopard (Neofelis nebulosa), the smallest of the 'big cats' and the Snow Leopard (Uncia uncia) belong to completely different genera and are less closely related to the Leopard than are jaguars, tigers and lions. The Iriomote cat is a subspecies of Leopard cat. The Scottish Wildcat (Felis sylvestris grampia) is a subspecies of the European Wildcat. The African Wildcat was previously a seperate species, Felis libyca but is now considered to be a subspecies of Felis sylvestris. Black 'Panthers' are not a species as such, but a melanistic mutant, normally of the leopard, or jaguar, but black pumas and wildcats have also been reported and, in theory, all cats can have unusual coat variants.
The relationships of cats are being studied with the latest molecular techniques. These have thrown up some surprising findings, such as the fact that, the cheetah, which has always been placed in its own Subfamily, appears to be very closely related to the puma at the DNA level!
The latest taxonomy is noted below, but as more molecular data becomes available, this is likely to change.
I am grateful to Erik Eriksson for pointing out that Carolus Linneaus (or Carl von Linn) was Swedish, not Swiss.
| Species of Cat|
Family Felidae Fisher, 1817
(was Felis caracal)
(was Felis badia)
|Bornean bay cat|
Vigors & Horsfield, 1827)
(was Felis temminckii)
|Asian golden cat (Temminck's Golden Cat)|
|Chinese mountain (desert) cat|
(Includes Felis lybica and Felis catus)
|Wildcat (Includes African Wildcats and the domestic cat)|
(was Felis pardalis)
(was Felis tigrina)
|Oncilla (American Tiger Cat, Little spotted cat)|
(was Felis wiedii)
(was Felis lynx)
(was Felis lynx)
(was Felis lynx)
(Schreber, 1776) (was Felis rufus)
(was Felis colocolo)
(d'Orbigny & Gervais, 1844)
(was Felis geoffroyi)
(was Felis guigna)
(was Felis jacobita)
|Andean mountain cat|
(was Felis manul)
(was Felis bengalensis (and F. iriomotensis))
|Leopard cat (Includes Iriomote Cat1)|
(Vigors & Horsfield, 1827)
(was Felis planiceps)
|Flat-headed cat (Little Malayan red cat)|
(Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, 1831)
(was Felis rubiginosus)
(was Felis viverrina)
(was Felis aurata)
|African golden cat|
(was Felis concolor)
|Puma (Cougar, Mountain Lion, Painter, Catamount, Florida Panther)|
Martin, 1837 (was Felis marmorata)
(Schreber, 1758) (was Panthera uncia)
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