JaguarundiSmall, it may be, but the jaguarundi has a close connection to bigger cats. Genetic clues indicate that this cat’s ancestor arrived in the Americas sometime between 8 and 8.5 million years ago. That ancestral species kicked off an explosive radiation of New World cats, including the genus Puma – the genus to which the Jaguarundi belongs. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because the wide-ranging cougar belongs to the same genus and is the jaguarundi’s closest living relative. The family connection isn’t quite so apparent at a glance, though. Found in grasslands and forests from Texas to Argentina, the jaguarundi only gets to be about 30 inches long and sports coats of either rust red or gray.
Flat-headed CatSoutheast Asia’s flat-headed cat is one of the oddest looking felids. The combination of big eyes and little ears give this multi-colored cat a civet-like appearance, but that cute muzzle also hides a set of conical canines much longer than would be expected for such a small cat. The felid puts those teeth to work on wriggling fish and other slippery aquatic prey in the forests of Sumatra, Borneo, and the Malay Peninsula, although how long it may keep doing so is unclear. A 2010 assessment of the cat’s chance at survival noted that over 70 percent of its habitat has been destroyed by human settlement and agriculture, and researchers expect that the cat’s populations will keep shrinking as development continues. If the flat-headed cat is to be saved, conservationists have little time left.
Iriomote CatWhile technically a subspecies of Asia’s leopard cat, the Iriomote cat is peculiar in that it is only found on the Japanese island of the same name. At 109 square miles around, the island offers limited space for the solitary, brown- and gray-mottled cats. That presents conservationists with a frustrating problem. The Iriomote cat is currently listed as critically endangered, with less than 250 of these unique cats still in the wild. Separated from other leopard cat populations by the sea, the challenge is to find a place for these rare felids to survive in the forested hills of their home.
Sand CatThe sand cat is certainly a contender for the most extreme little felid. Rather than inhabiting forest or grassland, these tawny cats inhabit arid deserts in northwestern Africa and southwest Asia. And befitting such harsh environments, the sand cat has some peculiar adaptations that it allow it to live where other cats could not. In addition to a dense coat of fur that insulates them from chilly nighttime temperatures, the sand cat has peculiar strands of black hair on their paws to protect their toes from searing sands. Their special feet can frustrate researchers, though. In addition to keeping their feet safe, the special hairs make the sand cat’s tracks nearly invisible.
WildcatCompared to other small cats around the world, the wildcat looks rather plain. They’re not so different from the purring felines that live in our homes. There’s a good reason for that. Wildcats are the probable ancestors of the housecats, with the genetic trail for the split between wild and domestic cats going back to about 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent. The cats live elsewhere – from western Europe through southern Africa and Asia. Wildcats are a little larger, are stockier, and have longer tails than their domestic descendants, but they are the recognizable template from which our domestic moggies descended.
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