Extinct cats are species that once existed, but no longer have any living members. Both wild and domestic cat species have become extinct in the past.
Extinction can be caused by a number of things, such as loss of habitat, hunting, and even the effects of pollution.
We can learn about extinct cat breeds through historic records, if they exist. Or through resources like fossils.
Read on to learn more about which cat breeds no longer exist, and what caused them to become extinct.
- What is extinction?
- Why do animals become extinct?
- How do we know about extinct animals?
- Extinct big cats
- Extinct wild cats
- Domestic extinct cat breeds
- How to stop extinction
What is Extinction?
Cats that are extinct have completely died out. There are no more living animals of this species in conservation or in the wild.
When people hear the word ‘extinct’ many immediately think of birds like dodos. Creatures which have been extinct for hundreds of years!
But, all sorts of species become extinct around the world more commonly than you’d think. There are many reasons for the extinction of different animals, and we will look at some of those in more detail below.
Extinct Cat Breeds vs Extinct Cat Species
Domestic cats are a thriving species. But some of their ancestors and close relatives have been lost to us forever.
Our house cats have also, like our dogs, become divided into many different types or breeds.
We sometimes also use the term extinction when referring to different breeds of animal that all belong to the same species.
Why do Animals Become Extinct?
Different animals can become extinct for multiple different reasons. Each case can be caused by unique factors depending on the circumstances.
One major question asked when discussing these causes is “can we stop it from happening?”
Some of these causes are much easier to stop than others, but each one is complex.
So, let’s take a look at each one in a little more detail.
Diseases can spread quickly through populations and even through species. This factor is often more likely to cause a fluctuation in population than actual extinction.
This is because disease may not be able to reach every individual in a species, especially if they are very spread out.
However, if an animal population is already small, it is certainly possible that it could be wiped out by disease.
Predators of animals can be other animal species, or even humans.
These predators, including humans, can hunt certain species like some of the extinct cats we’ll talk about below, into extinction. Over-hunting caused by humans is a huge risk to the existence of different species.
Predators aren’t always pre-existing. Extinction can be caused by the introduction of new predators to certain environments.
When this happens, the animals being preyed on are not used to the new threat. So, they are often unable to or not prepared to protect themselves from it.
The balances in animals’ environments are very delicate, and just one change can often have detrimental effects.
Climate and Environmental Change
One of the most well-known causes of extinction is climate change, which consequently prompts environmental change.
This environmental change can threaten the existence of certain species, even causing near extinct cats to die out.
The speed at which climate change causes environmental change, such as rising temperatures and new weather patterns, is too fast for some species to keep up. They cannot adapt at the same pace, bringing about their demise.
Keeping Wild Animals as Pets
One large factor contributing to the extinction or endangerment of wild cats is the trend and desire of some people to keep them as pets.
Keeping wild animals as pets may seem far-fetched at first, but it is more common than you might think.
It is detrimental to the animals because they are being removed from their natural environments and are prevented from breeding further. But many also die in the actual transportation and capture processes.
For instance, when trying to capture cubs, parent-cats can be killed.
For many people, owning exotic animals is a display of wealth and status. It is a fashion accessory, and not in any way a concern for the health and preservation of these animals.
Another dangerous trend that can lead to extinct felines in particular, is fashion trends.
Big cats are commonly hunted for their fur, or even for the medicinal values some people believe they have. Over-hunting and illegal hunting (poaching) can cause extinction in many species.
This is the main cause of many extinct cats. And, some modern breeds look likely to sadly join the list of wild cats poached into extinction.
At times this hunting is not even done to obtain fur or products to sell on. Hunting tourism has a large culture in countries around Africa, as an example.
How do we Know About Extinct Animals?
When animals no longer exist and live alongside us, it can be hard to find out information about them.
For example, we have an extensive knowledge of cats that are potentially going to become extinct in the near future because we live alongside them, and are able to study them.
But some cats, especially big cats, became extinct thousands of years ago.
In order for us to find out more about these big cats we have to rely on things such as fossils, and DNA techniques.
Paleontologists can help us learn more about long-extinct animals. Their knowledge about tectonic plate movements, fossilization and ecosystems from thousands of years ago can help make sense of ancient habitats and piece together the lives of these animals.
Extinct Cat Species Fossils
From fossils, we can learn precise information about the inner mechanisms of animals’ bodies. This includes the strength and placement of their muscles, nerves and more.
They can help us gain knowledge about the preserved animal’s diet, through study of the shape of the skull, teeth and strength of jaw muscles.
We can also use the site of the fossil to obtain information about the ecosystem that the animal lived in.
Unfortunately, fossils cannot provide us with a complete knowledge. There are some things, such as body fat, that can’t be known through fossil examination.
But, we can learn enough about the animal to recreate an approximate picture.
Using Modern Animals
To get information about the behaviour of long-extinct animals, scientists also use animals that exist nowadays for comparison.
They can look at similar animals, such as comparing extinct felines to modern big cats in similar habitats.
Again, this isn’t a perfect method. But, it can help us to predict how extinct cat species behaved when they were alive.
Extinct Big Cats
There are lots of examples of extinct big cats we can look at, ranging from those that became extinct thousands of years ago, to those that only became extinct in the last few decades.
Here are 6 extinct big cats that you might have heard about before.
Saber Tooth Cats
Saber-Tooth Cats actually refers to a group of extinct cat species. These extinct felines are characterized by their long, curved incisor teeth.
This is one of the oldest, and most well known types of extinct cat. Specific species of Saber Tooth Cats include the Smilodon and the Homotherium.
From what we have discovered about these big predators, Saber Tooth Cats bear little resemblance to big cats around today.
Since these cats became extinct such a long time ago, our knowledge of them is gained through fossils.
The American Cheetah is also known as the Miracinonyx.
Despite its name, this extinct feline bears a striking resemblance to the modern Puma more than any other big cat.
Fossils have allowed us to distinguish the American Cheetah as a separate group rather than an earlier, ancestral puma.
Another extinct cat species that died out thousands of years ago is the American Lion.
Despite isolation from African and Asian lions, the American Lion is often compared to modern lions.
These extinct big cats have been studied through fossils. Scientists and paleontologists have estimated that American Lions were around 25% larger than lions that exist today.
These cats were carnivores, with a stronger bite than modern lions, long legs, and retractable claws to aid in hunting prey.
Their presumed cause of extinction is a combination of factors. This includes the changing climate and disruption caused by paleolithic humans.
The Eastern Cougar was declared extinct in 2011. But, there was speculation about its numbers before then, as it was so rarely seen.
In fact, there are claims that it has been extinct since the 1930s, even though it was only on the endangered species list since 1973.
When investigating whether the Eastern Cougar was extinct, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded all apparent sightings were of different types of cougars.
The Bali Tiger is an extinct big cat that once lived on the island of Bali in Indonesia.
These tigers were relatively small in comparison to others. They were more similar in size to leopards.
They preyed on other animals that lived in the same forested areas of the island. The only known predator of this big cat was humans. Both natives and Dutch colonists hunted the Bali Tiger, contributing to its extinction.
Bali tigers were said to last for a couple of decades after the last known one was killed in 1937.
Another tiger breed that has unfortunately died out is the Javan tiger. These are recent cats that are extinct, dying out in only the last 100 years.
The Javan tiger lived in East Java, Indonesia when they were still around.
Many people believe that the main reason for their decline was ecological change.
These extinct cats were distinguished from other tigers due by their larger legs, making them seem generally bigger as a breed.
The Caspian Tiger preferred to live in areas with close proximity to water. But, this location was also preferred by humans.
As a result, humans hunted Caspian Tigers, and their prey. This contributed to their official extinction in the 1970s.
Extinct Wild Cats
There are some cats that no longer exist in the wild, only in captivity. So, whilst they’re not technically extinct, they’re very near it and are worth taking a look at in this guide.
It can be hard to track some cats – so there are not many cats that only exist in captivity. Let’s take a look at a couple.
South China Tiger
The South China Tiger is a subspecies of tiger that is considered functionally extinct in the wild. However, some argue that it still exists in the wild, as it is only officially classed as critically endangered.
South China Tiger numbers in the wild were severely reduced by an influx of hunting after the 1950s.
Hunting was banned in 1979 by the Chinese government. But only 17 years later the breed’s numbers were down to below 100, potentially as little as just 30.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, this feline has not been seen in the wild for over 25 years.
But, governments in China have shown an intent to reintroduce the South China Tiger into the wild. So, studies have been examining suitable prey species, and assessing the best location for this.
Hopefully, if successful, this functionally extinct feline will regain its numbers.
The Barbary lion is a prime example of a cat that is now extinct in the wild, and possibly in captivity too.
These lions had long, dark manes, lived in prides and were once considered one of the biggest subspecies of lions that existed.
People reported sightings of these extinct cats in the 1950s and 1960s around Morocco and Algeria and even some sightings in the past few decades. But, none of these have been proven.
In fact, there are concerns that Barbary lions are actually extinct in captivity, as well as in the wild.
The Barbary lion is considered extinct both in captivity and the wild by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. But, there are some lions in European zoos that are considered part, but not full, descendants of these big cats.
Extinct Domestic Cat Breeds
Most people, when thinking about extinct cats, would think of big, wild cats. But, domestic animals can become extinct too.
For instance, when there are no cats left of a certain breed, the breed is classed as extinct. This can happen even if a breed decreases in popularity.
There are many claims for ‘mythical’ cats that have existed in the past but little hard evidence for most of them. Two extinct cat breeds we know for certain are the Mexican Hairless Cat and the Oregon Rex Cat.
Mexican Hairless Cat
This extinct cat breed was a small, mostly hairless cat that originated in Mexico. Although people from New Mexico in the US also owned these cats.
This breed is said to descend from a hairless cat in South America. But also to have physical markings characteristic of a striped tabby.
In many ways, the Mexican Hairless Cat was said to be like any other domestic cat. However, one study says it could be around one-fourth smaller than the average domestic cat.
It also developed a ridge of hair along its spine in the colder winter months.
The term ‘rex’ in cats, is used to denote a short curly coat.
The Oregon Rex cat was named for the state of Oregon. This extinct cat breed was first found in Oregon in the 1950s.
Cats Near Extinction
Some of the causes of extinction we looked at earlier are still happening. This is affecting even more cat species, even as you read this article.
Two of the main culprits are the constant effects of climate change on delicate ecosystems, and the destruction of natural habitats by human industrial expansion.
So, many other cat breeds are in danger of becoming extinct. These are categorised as endangered and critically endangered at the moment.
Due to climate change, people fear that the Iberian lynx will become extinct in as little as 50 years.
These big cats suffer from the loss of their main food, the rabbit, as well as poaching, and the destruction of their habitat.
Some researchers argue it is possible for us to prevent this extinction. They want to attempt a re-introduction of the Lynx, expanding its existence at least for a few more decades.
But, others argue extinction is inevitable even if we meet targets to curb carbon emissions.
West African Lion
The West African Lion is another critically endangered big cat, who is suffering from a lack of sustainable prey, habitat destruction, and death at the hands of humans.
Unfortunately, these three factors are very common for near-extinct cat species.
The majority of these big cats now exist within a conservation complex in Benin. So, if their population continues to deplete, they may soon become extinct in the wild.
The Amur Leopard inhabits eastern Russia and north-east China. It is another critically endangered breed.
This big cat is affected by climate change, habitat change (such as deforestation), and the illegal wildlife trade.
It is estimated by the WWF that as few as 70 of these leopards remain in the wild. So, numbers are very low.
But, conservation work for the Amur Leopard is seemingly prompting a rise in their population. So, there may be a less gloomy picture than we see for other big cats.
In fact, people who hunt this cat in Russia can be jailed for over two years. So, there are attempts to combat the loss of this near extinct wild cat.
Another species of leopard that suffers from a declining population is the snow leopard. This is currently categorised as endangered.
These cats suffer from the same issues as the Amur Leopard: habitat destruction, climate change and conflict with humans.
It is often hard to pin a specific number on the Snow Leopard as they are so well camouflaged in their natural habitat. But, conservationists have observed a decline in their numbers.
It is important to preserve these big cats. As with many other predators we have looked at in this article, they are vital in sustaining a balanced environment.
Without snow leopards hunting the sheep and goats that they eat, there could be too many herbivores. With more sheep and goats needing to be fed, there would potentially be less food on the snowy mountains for other animals. So, there is a domino effect when we lose big cats.
How to Stop Extinction
Overall, it is clear that many different types of cats have fallen into the extinct category. And it appears we are at risk of losing even more.
However, things don’t look totally bleak. Many governments are enforcing conservation efforts in an attempt to prevent more big cats from dying out.
This can involve moving near extinct felines into protected nature reserves, enforcing harsher anti-poaching laws, and cracking down on the use of big cats for fashion.
There are even ways that normal people can help. For instance, supporting organisations who are dedicated to helping near-extinct animals.
Extinct Big Cats
As you’ve seen, there are unfortunately a lot of cats that are extinct.
Thanks to various scientific techniques we are able to gather information about extinct cats. Even those that have been extinct for hundreds and thousands of years.
This can also help us trace back the ancestry of cats that exist today.
Is there anything more you think we can be doing to help protect some of our most beautiful animals from becoming extinct?
References and Resources
- Barnett, R. (et al), ‘Evolution of the Extinct Sabretooths and the American Cheetah-Like Cat’, Current Biology (2005)
- Racey, M. ‘Long Extinct Eastern Cougar to be Removed from Endangered Species List Correcting Lingering Anomaly’, US Fish & Wildlife Service (2018)
- Bush, E. (et al), ‘Global Trade in Exotic Pets (2006-2012)’, Society for Conservation Biology (2014)
- Fordham, D. (et al), ‘Adapted Conservation Measures are Required to Save the Iberian Lynx in a Changing Climate’, Nature Climate Change (2013)
- Chimento, N. & Agnolin, F. ‘The Fossil American Lion (Panthera Atrox) in South America: Palaeobiological Implications’, Comptes Rendus Palevol (2017)
- Endangered List
- Mellen, I. ‘The Origin of the Mexican Hairless Cat’, Journal of Heredity (1939)
- Kane, M. (et al), ‘Potential for Camera-Traps and Spatial Mark-Resight Models to Improve Monitoring of the Critically Endangered West African Lion’, Biodiversity and Conservation (2015)
- Tilson, R. (et al), ‘Dramatic Decline of Wild South China Tigers Panthera Tigris Amoyensis: Field Survey of Priority Tiger Reserves’, Oryx (2004)
- Tilson, R. (et al), ‘The Decline and Impending Extinction of the South China Tiger’, Oryx (2003)
- Qin, Y. (et al), ‘An Assessment of South China Tiger Reintroduction Potential in Hupingshan and Houhe National Nature Reserves, China’, Biological Conservation (2015)
- Yamaguchi, N. (et al), ‘Locating Specimens of Extinct Tiger (Panthera Tigris) Subspecies: Javan Tiger (P. T. Sondaica), Balinese Tiger (P. T. Balica), and Caspian Tiger (P. T. Virgata), Including Previously Unpublished Specimens’, Mammal Study (2013)
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