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Do Cats Hear with Their Feet?
Just-So Tales of Cat Beginnings
But I tell you, a cat needs a name that's particular,
A name that's peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular.
Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?
...T. S. Eliot
I am not in any position to argue with T. S. Eliot, so we must begin this long contemplation of the cat by looking at names, specifically scientific names. For some people, the names that scientists assign to animals and plants are a pain in the neck to remember, being made up of two words (at least) and expressed in a kind of Greco-Latin mongrel language that is hard to pronounce or remember and that begs translation. This is done for purposes of precision, not to exclude laymen from the priesthood. Also, scientific names are kind of backward. The last name says what species the animal is, and the first name refers to the genus (plural: genera), which is the group of species to which this animal is closely related. If the logic of these scientific names were applied to me, for example, and in English, my name would be Page Jake. Either way, the name is particular if not peculiar and that is the point of scientific names.
The name that science has bequeathed the domestic cat is not as peculiar as Eliot's Quaxo, or Rumpelteazer, or Macavity, but it is highly specific, even what might be called particular: Felis catus. It means "Cat cat," which is to say the species "cat" in the genus "Cat." Most emphatically, then, Felis catus is a cat. The name was bestowed by Carl von Linne, a Swedish biologist otherwise known as Linnaeus, who in the eighteenthcentury developed the two-name, or binomial, system of naming all God's creatures. The name, while particular, does not match in any way the lithe grace, the nonchalance, or the sleek mystery of the cat, but one learns not to expect poetry from science in such matters.
Until recently the scientists (called taxonomists) who continued Linnaeus's work had a pretty straightforward and simple way of naming all the cats in the world. They put all but one into two large groups based chiefly on size. All the big cats...charismatic megafauna, they are sometimes called: lions, tigers, jaguars, leopards, and so forth...were placed in the genus Panthera. One thing the pantherine cats have in common is a small cartilaginous doodad called a hyoid in the throat that, along with other features, allows them to roar.
All but one of the other cats were put into the genus Felis. Among the felines, the hyoid doodad is bony, not soft, and they cannot roar. The exception was the cheetah. It inhabited a third genus, namely Acinonyx, all by itself. The reason for this exclusion is that cheetahs have proportionately longer legs than most cats, shorter snouts, bigger nostrils, more domed heads, a more flexible backbone, and feet without retractable claws. All of those features (except maybe the domed head) combine to make the cheetah the world's greatest short-distance sprinter, clocked at around seventy miles an hour when chasing down a Thomson's gazelle over some 400 yards.
All the other cats, large and small, pantherine and feline (and in all there are some thirty-six species by some ways of counting), are built to be hunters who sneak up on their prey, run it down in a short burst of speed, and dispatch it before quickly eating it. (Well, there are exceptions to all rules: a house cat will sometimes bat a captured mouse around for a while before eating it, and many wild cats will eat some and cache the rest for later.) Overall, this sets the cats apart from the cheetah and its amazing velocity, and from wild dogs like wolves that tear at the prey animal during the chase.
Cats, using the term inclusively here, seem from the very beginnings of catdom long ago in a nearly unimaginably distant past to have hit upon the largely ideal physique for their kind of work. As British paleontologist Alan Turner writes, structurally the domestic cat "can be seen as simply a scaled-down version of a lion or a leopard, and in evolutionary terms the larger cats may even be considered as scaled-up versions of something much like a domestic cat." They all have relatively long limbs, a short gut for digesting only meat, feet with claws (all but the cheetah's being retractable), scissorlike cheek teeth called carnassials for shearing off pieces of meat, and especially long, sharp canine teeth. They are extremely supple animals, and most of them can climb trees with ease, though many don't bother. In any event, the resemblance of one cat to another is great. Cats are all recognizably cats. By contrast there are dogs that look like fat mongooses, raccoons, and powder puffs; see, for example, the Shih Tzu.
It seems a shame then, to me at least, that the Felid Taxon Advisory Group and others involved in cat taxonomy have recently chosen to add a host of new genus names and species names to further differentiate cats even though they are all so much alike. This happens periodically in taxonomy. For a while the "splitters" get the upper hand and genus and species names proliferate, cats that are separated only by geography getting to be separate species. And what with modern genetics, scientists can pinpoint almost infinitesimally small differences that make splitting almost irresistible. But usually the "lumpers" take over after a while and put everything back together again. A complete list of this riotous profusion of cat names can be found in appendix A, which is a brief catalogue of all the wild cats.
There used to be an almost hard-and-fast, and practical, rule about the idea of a species. It was simply that all members of a species can breed with each other but cannot successfully breed with members of another species and produce reproductively viable offspring (meaning grandchildren). Mate a horse with a donkey and you get a mule that is sterile. End of lineage.Do Cats Hear with Their Feet?. Copyright © by Jake Page. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.