The biological family Felidae is a lineage of carnivorans that includes the cats. A member of this family is also called a felid. The characteristic features of cats have evolved to support a carnivorous lifestyle, with adaptations for ambush or stalking and short pursuit hunting. They have gracile and muscular bodies, strong flexible forelimbs and retractable claws for holding prey, dental and cranial adaptations for a strong bite, and often have characteristic striped or spotted coat patterns for camouflage. Cats are obligate carnivores, meaning they are dependent on nutrients in animal flesh for survival, and because of the large proportion of meat in their diet are sometimes referred to as hypercarnivores. Of the 13 terrestrial families in the order Carnivora, they are the strictest carnivores.
Living cats belong to two subfamilies, the Pantherinae and Felinae. The former comprises the “big cats” (the tiger, lion, jaguar, leopard, snow leopard, clouded leopard and Sunda clouded leopard). Felinae comprises all the non-pantherine cats, which range in size from the small rusty-spotted cat to the big cat-sized puma and includes such diverse forms as the lynx, ocelot, serval and cheetah, as well as the domestic cat.
The first cats emerged during the Oligocene, about 25 million years ago, with the appearance of Proailurus and Pseudaelurus. The latter species complex was ancestral to two main lines of felids, the cats in the extant subfamilies and a third major group of extinct cats, which are assigned to the subfamily Machairodontinae. The machairodonts included the saber-toothed cats such as the Smilodon. The “false sabre toothed cats”, the Barbourofelidae and Nimravidae, are not true cats, but are closely related and together with Felidae and other cat-like carnivores (hyaenas, viverrids and mongooses) make up the feliform carnivores.
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