Saturday, December 26, 2015

How cats conquered the earth

Thanks to a unique feline blueprint they're the planet's most successful survivors, reveals a new documentary 

  • Biologist Patrick Aryee gets up close to lions and tigers  
  • The two-part show also charts their 11-million-year history 
  • Big Cats: An Amazing Animal Family starts on Monday, 8pm, Sky1 
They’re the superheroes of the animal kingdom, the most powerful predators on the planet whose extraordinary skills have given them valuable advantages over other animals. 

Humans aside, they’re the most successful survivors on Earth, having adapted to almost every conceivable environment from the harsh Siberian wilds to Africa’s scorched savannah.

They are, of course, cats. And while big cats have long been a wildlife TV subject, you’ll never have seen a show quite like biologist Patrick Aryee’s before. Yes, he gets up close and personal with lions and tigers and talks about their hunting prowess. 

Cheetah's in Kenya's Masai Mara Nature Reserve 
Cheetah's in Kenya's Masai Mara Nature Reserve 

But his stunningly filmed two-part show Big Cats: An Amazing Animal Family also charts their 11 million-year history and explores how the ‘blueprint’ common to them all has made them such survivors.

‘From tooth to tail, cats are formidable predators with sensory superpowers,’ says Londoner Patrick, who was inspired to become a scientist after watching David Attenborough talking about big cats on TV. 

‘There are 37 different species but there are certain traits that link them all. They have excellent vision: in low light it is six times better than a human’s. They have whiskers that can detect tiny movements in the air, letting them home in on their prey. 

'They’re nimble; their spines are so flexible they can twist 180°. But what sets them apart are their weapons; dogs’ claws can become blunt but cats’ are always razor sharp as they retract them when they don’t need them. And they have a precise way of killing with a deadly bite to the back of the neck.’
A clouded leopard, the first cat
A clouded leopard, the first cat

The story starts in the rainforests of south-east Asia 11 million years ago. Scientists believe the clouded leopard was the first cat – and it still exists today. ‘It’s an ancient predator, almost as much monkey as cat,’ says Patrick, who sees them in Thailand. 
‘But it has those same attributes that made cats so powerful.’ From here cats moved to the frozen wastes of Russia where today’s huge Siberian tiger – twice as heavy as tigers in the tropics – can survive in -40°C. ‘Bigger bodies are better at retaining heat while their thick winter coat and added layer of fat has adapted for life in the snow,’ says Patrick.

Eight million years ago as land bridges opened up they moved from Asia to Africa, where the majestic lion emerged. ‘They introduced the idea of a pride, when cats had been solitary creatures,’ says Patrick. He meets Kevin Richardson, a South African who’s part of a pride – he hunts with them and even cleans their teeth. 

Kevin puts Patrick in a safety cage on the savannah to let him join the pride too. ‘I felt like dinner. The dominant male came so close I could smell his breath. I was shaking and it was terrifying,’ says Patrick.

During the Ice Age cats travelled from Asia to America. Patrick meets the Canada lynx, which has the thickest fur of any cat and huge paws that act like snow shoes. As the lynx moved on it adapted to each landscape. In tropical Belize in Central America it became the margay, a treetop hunter that leaps up to 13ft between branches. 

The puma, also called the cougar or mountain lion, emerged and spread across California before crossing back into Africa where it evolved into the cheetah, Earth’s fastest mammal. ‘So the cat renowned for its lightning speed is an American immigrant,’ laughs Patrick. The cheetah’s one disadvantage is that it’s small, making it vulnerable to lions and leopards which target its cubs and steal its prey.

Cats began to co-habit with humans 10,000 years ago when man started living in settlements. It was a mutually beneficial relationship; cats kept rodents away and in return they got warmth, security and a place to nurture kittens. 

‘Humans have been disastrous for almost every other animal except cats,’ says Patrick. ‘There are about 600 million domestic cats in the world. That’s why I’d say, of all the great feline species, the domestic cat is the majestic culmination of the cat story. It’s the ultimate cat.’

Big Cats: An Amazing Animal Family starts on Monday, 8pm, Sky1.

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