Latin Names for Big Cats

There’s an excellent explanation of what the big cats in Britain are in “Panthers and Pumas Explained” in Rick Minter’s Big Cat Conversations blog.

The big cat seen in the UK are thought to be known animals – mostly exotic big cats or wild cats that escaped from captivity, or their descendants. It’s believed there was a wave of big cat escapees in the early 1970s, around the time the Dangerous Wild Animals Act was introduced, so British big cats would now be in their third or even fourth generation. (See Mystery Animals of Suffolk, Chapter 21.)

There is also a theory that some big cats seen in Suffolk and the rest of the UK are in fact feral domestic cats – domestic cats gone wild and their descendants – that over many generations have grown to a gigantic size. (See Mystery Animals of Suffolk, Chapter 22.)

It is course possible that both explanations are correct, that some are exotic escapees and their descendants, while others are feral “domestics” gone gigantic.

There are also some British big cats that don’t fit the description of any known species of wildcat or feral domestic cat. There is the “rabbit-headed cat”, a black cat with a small head, seen particularly in Scotland. There is the “running cat”, a black big cat that has been observed chasing after deer and other prey in prolonged chases – behaviour unlike most big cats, which are ambush predators only capable of a short sprint.

Within East Anglia, there was the black big cat with long, “tufted” ears seen at Orford Golf Course near Woodbridge – a description unlike any known big cat. There was the muscular black big cat with a ruff that vaguely resembled a lynx, but black. There was the long-bodied, light coloured, off-white animal filmed just outside Thetford Forest – was it a puma or something stranger?

However, most British big cat described or filmed by witnesses seem to fit the description of known big cat or wildcat species. One witnesses describe after their encounter looking up big cats online and then telling me what they saw looked “exactly like the photo of a lynx on Wikpedia”, for example.  These are most likely real flesh and blood animals and we can call them by their scientific Latin names.

The big cats belong and domestic cats and wildcats belong to the sub-family Felidae. There’s a very clear and simple list of the English and Latin names for the species of big cat, wild cat and domestic cat here.

Some of the big cats spotted in Suffolk and the rest of the British Isles belong to the family Panthera. This includes leopards, (Panthera pardus), tigers, (Panthera tigris),  lions (Panthera leo), jaguars (Panthera onca), and snow leopards (Panthera uncia). Some of the big cats spotted in the UK are thought to be either melanistic (black) leopards or possibly melanistic jaguars. Melanistic leopards are also confusingly known as “black panthers”, there’s an explanation here.

There have been no credible sightings of lions or tigers wild in the UK. Witness sometimes describe seeing an animal like a “lioness” but this is probably a misidentified puma. There are several well-documented cases of lions escaping from zoos or safari parks in the UK. These are usually recaptured or shot within a few days. Lions are animals of the open savannah, not suited to lying low in our little English woodlands and heaths.

Tigers are probably too big to survive on the prey that the English wilderness provides, not without drawing considerable attention to themselves. Cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) in captivity are probably too tame to make it in the wild in Britain.

Pumas (Puma concolor) – also known as cougars or mountain lions – are not members of the family Panthera. The arrangements of the bones in their throats mean they cannot roar, which is a characteristic of Panthera. A minority of big cats seen in the UK – around a quarter to a fifth of sightings in any given local “county sample” seem to be pumas.

Other big cats seen in the UK could be lynxes (Lynx lynx or possibly Lynx canadensis) or their close relatives bobcats, (Lynx rufus) or servals (Leptailurus serval) or caracals (Caracal caracal) or jungle cats (Felix chaus) or other species of wildcat. Others are thought to be really huge feral domestic cats. There’s more description – using the English names – of some of the big cats – here.

There’s a list and explanation of the various members of the Felidae family and its various sub-divisions – lineages, genera and species, here.

There’s a short video on the 40 or so smaller species of wildcat that are members of the sub-family Felidae and how they are related to the domestic cat Felis cattus here. 

There’s also a look at how domestic cats are related to other cat species here.

There’s a very accessible description of most of the species of big cat or wildcat here, aimed at a younger audience, linking to sources with a note about how easy to read these sources are.


Oddities and Hybrids

Some of the British big cats reported from Suffolk and elsewhere don’t match the description of any known species of big cat or wildcat. Some of these may be hybrids of different species of feline, or even hybrids of exotic wildcats and feral domestic cats. Such hybrids  have been recorded in captivity and in the wild.

Mystery Animals of Suffolk looks at possible hybrid big cats. See also Hybrid Felines on the Messy Beast website.



Gigantic Feral Domestic Cats

I’ve heard a lot about Bengal cats, and how Britain’s big cats are supposed to be misidentified Bengal cats, how the genes of Bengal cats and other exotic breeds are supposed to have got into the feral cat population and turned them into something altogether different… and bigger. I heard that Bengal cats were real characters, they liked to go for walks on leads, and that they were such a handful behaviourally that they were often abandoned. I recall reading Big Cat Rescue saying that they used to get call-outs from people saying there was a “Florida panther” on the loose, attacking Alsatians and in some cases frightening old ladies, but when they got there it was often just an ever so slightly bigger than usual Bengal cat that had gone AWOL or been turned loose.

Legends tell of how the original Bengal cats, hybrids of the Asian leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis bengalensis) were named after one that was found in the Bay of Bengal on the approaches to Bombay (Mumbai) by early East India Company sailors, swimming out towards them. Like most exotic stories on the origins of exotic cat breeds, it’s probably nonsense. (Burmese cats weren’t originally from Burma, but from Thailand, “Bombay” cats were bred in Virginia, and so on.) We know they were deliberately crossbred. The UK Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 came in largely because Bengal cats (and wolf dogs, crosses between dogs and wolves) were turning up in the country, with the authorities unsure how they would turn out, the law banned wolfdogs (they’re now legal) and required a license for Bengal cats that had more leopard cat genes than “F4” (fourth generation). Bengal cats are known for their “confident” temperament (a bit of an understatement!) Breeders sell them for anything up to £800 each.

I finally got to meet a Bengal cat face to face. He lives somewhere in the Blyth Valley in Suffolk, looked after by a fosterer. He came from a smaller house at the other end of the same village, but he obviously decided he didn’t like his accommodation and fancied living in a bigger house and garden nearby, so he abandoned his humans and moved on in his new chosen home – fairly typical Bengal cat behaviour, I am told!

He is very vocal, quite friendly, and the two things that really struck me about him are that he is very muscular – at first glance he looks a little on the overweight side until you see that he is all muscle. Secondly, his fur is very short and shiny, it has a different feel to most cat fur. His back is also different to a mainstream domestic cats – a bit more arched. His toes seem a little longer too. The vestigal pad that most cats have towards the back of their paws is much more pronounced.

And check out his markings – quite unlike anything you’d see on a domestic cat – those leopard-like rosettes!