The secret life of the cat

The Big Cats and Their Fossil Relatives
October 31, 1997

Humanity has a close and predominantly uncomfortable relationship with cats, as anyone whose slumbers have been interrupted by an amorous tom knows. Nor is the relationship a recent one. Injuries to Australo-pithecus cited by Raymond Dart, Robert Ardrey and others as evidence for conspecific bashing, and so for the "killer ape" lurking in our genes, are now recognised as due to leopard attacks: early hominids were prey, not predators.

This authoritatively written and beautifully illustrated account summarises what is known about the larger cats, both living and fossil. The authors provide a fascinating overview of felid diversity, and in doing so painlessly impart a good deal of information about the nature of adaptation, evolutionary processes and patterns, and the relationship of form and function, so that the cats serve as a paradigm for much of evolutionary biology.

After an introductory summary of taxonomy and fossilisation processes, two chapters review felid diversity, living and extinct, first by higher taxa and then by selected species. Since there have been several independent felid radiations over the last 30 million years and their systematic relationships are by no means clear, this is sometimes pretty uncompromising stuff. The reader needs to get his jaws around names that can be even longer than the canines of Barbourofelis and Thylacosmilus. But some acquaintance with Nimravids, Machairodonts, Homotherines etc is necessary to appreciate the complexity of felid systematics and the degree of parallel evolution in the separate groups, so underscoring the crucial role of adaptation in their evolutionary dynamics. The names are long and strange, but coping with them is eased by a lucid text and plentiful illustrations.

Among extinct cats the authors pay particular attention to sabre-tooths. This group, itself heterogeneous, includes marsupials from South America and distinct North American and Old World placental radiations. What they have in common are long, projecting upper canines and the fact that they were not tigers. Their fearsome teeth were seemingly rather delicate and easily broken, and so experts dispute just how they obtained and consumed prey. The authors lead us carefully through these arguments, using teeth, jaw action and body form as pointers to likely ecology and behaviour. This theme is extended to include the senses, limb proportions, claws, tooth, jaw and skull anatomy, which are then combined in a clear and beautifully illustrated section on reconstructing soft anatomy and movement from fossil evidence.

This then serves as the basis for considering social behaviour, especially hunting and mating. Inevitably, most attention here goes to living species, but there is also discussion of likely fossil behaviours based on body sizes, faunal associations and tooth marks on victims' skeletons. Most cats (lions excepted) hunt singly and kill their prey before feeding, whereas dogs, with shorter claws and canines, and weaker forelimbs, combine to catch their prey which they then dispatch by eating it.

The final chapter reviews the cat radiations in the context of broader faunal changes and the major climatic events considered important influences on species diversity. There is a brief treatment of extinction patterns and conservation prospects.

Alan Turner's clear and knowledgeable text integrates with Mauricio Anton's striking illustrations, including 16 colour plates. They offer vivid reconstructions of extinct felids and detailed displays of their functional anatomy, several showing the reconstruction process from the skeleton through the deep and superficial muscles to skin and coat. Prose and image combine closely to provide a scholarly yet accessible account of felid evolution, and the book will be acclaimed as a model of popular communication in biological science.

Alan Bilsborough is professor of anthropology, University of Durham.

26Jbooks biological sciencesTHE TIMES 7Joctober 31J1997 THE TIMES 7Joctober 31J1997environment booksJ

The Big Cats and Their Fossil Relatives

Author - Mauricio Anton and Alan Turner
ISBN - 0 231 10228 3
Publisher - Columbia University Press
Price - £31.95
Pages - 234

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