Considering the focal point of this blog is big cats, I thought to begin with I’ll run over a brief introduction to the genus Panthera, as I always find a little background knowledge extremely useful in aiding understanding of any topic. I’ll keep this post pretty basic, so everyone will able to understand. One of the biggest problems in science these days, including biology, wildlife and conservation is making new information and research easily accessible to the general public. More often than not, leading scientists find it extremely difficult to communicate their research effectively to people outside of the scientific community, leading to confusion and a general lack of understanding and cohesion between scientists at the front line of wildlife conservation and the people who also really care about the protection of endangered species.
I will occasionally upload a post which may require a deeper level of scientific understanding to digest, however I see this blog as a journey into my understanding of big cats and the genus Panthera, so I hope you are able to share this with me, and build on your understanding over time.
Panthera is a genus within the Felidae family of cats, which contains the species Lion, Tiger, Leopard, Jaguar and Snow Leopard. It is important to note at this stage, that although I will also touch upon the Cheetah, Cougar and Lynx within this blog, these species do not belong to Panthera, instead belonging to the other Genus within Felidae, Felinae, which contains all non pantherine cats (usually small to medium sized cats). Panthera was first described by the scientist German scientists Lorenz Oken in 1816, and is thought to have diverged from Felidnae in Asia between six and ten million years ago. At the time of writing, the exact origins of big cats remain unclear, however genetic studies have drawn up a number of different hypothesis for Panthera evolution, which I’ll draw upon in a later post. The take home message in today’s post, is that although numerous genetic studies have been conducted, there is still no definitive answer as to how exactly big cats evolved.
An often observed trait of big cats is their ability to roar. The Snow Leopard is the only species of Pantherine cat which is unable to produce such a sound. Previously, the ability to roar was though to be due to the incomplete ossification (laying down of new bone material) of the hyoid bone (a bone located in the neck between the chin and thyroid), however recent studies have found that the shape of big cat’s vocal chords dictate their ability to roar, especially in Lions and Tigers. These two cats have square shaped vocal chords allowing their roars to travel distances of up to eight miles!
The fossil record of Panthera stretches back to just three million years. Whilst this may seem like an incredibly long time, considering big cats are thought to have evolved up to ten million years ago, this leaves us with a very small window of time, relatively late in their evolutionary history. This makes it extremely difficult for scientists to come to an accurate conclusion regarding the origins of Panthera because of the lack of fossils from early big cats.
Big cats can be found all over the world. From Lions and Leopards in Africa, Jaguars in America and Tigers, Leopards and Lions in Asia they truly are global cats however all these species have come under increased threat in recent times. Throughout the course of this blog I will aim to address the issues which are facing big cats in their quest for survival but for now, I’ll leave you with that brief introduction to Panthera and a short youtube clip showing you the TV programme, Big Cat Diary, which first inspired me to find out more about these magnificent cats.