Written by Suzanne Redfearn for Nat Geo WILD and USA Today
Article originally appeared in a special edition of USA Today for Nat Geo WILD
Did you know that there are very few differences between your house cat and endangered big cats like the lion, tiger, cheetah and leopard? The main difference: size. Otherwise, genetically and behaviorally, they’re pretty much the same.
Even in the lab. Scientists recently were able to sequence the genomes of tigers, snow leopards and lions, and found that they share 95.6 percent of their DNA with domestic cats sitting in window sills and lying on beds across the world.
That’s not a surprise. Just look at all the behaviors and other traits they have in common.
1. Night vision: You can see your cat’s eyes glow at night. The same thing goes for big cats. All cats have a “tapetum lucidum,” a layer of tissue in their eyes that reflects light back through the retina, increasing available light to the photoreceptors in the eye. The result? Night vision that’s six times better than ours. All the better to stalk prey.
2. Sensitivity to movement: The thick shaft of the cat whisker is filled with tiny, super-sensitive nerves that help your furry buddy — and a lion — easily judge the size of the space they’re in, measure distance and detect changes in the air to suss out what’s around them. It’s like a very sophisticated GPS and radar system, helping big cats be the apex predators that they are, and helping your house cat catch mice and other critters.
3. Retractable claws: Over time, cats both big and small evolved to be able to bring their claws out when they’re needed for digging into prey or scaling a tree, then pull them back in to preserve their sharpness until they’re needed again for tearing or climbing. There’s an exception, though: the cheetah. A cheetah’s claws stay out at all times, to better grip the ground as they move at high speeds after prey.
4. Agility: All cats are nimble and agile, with their long tails aiding in their extraordinary balance. House cats and big cats alike can jump very high and land very well when descending from high up.
5. Stalking their prey: Both big cats and house cats will watch their prey from a distance, moving extremely slowly toward it with muscles tensed, then suddenly run at it in a burst of speed, ending with a pounce.
6. Climbing trees: House cats climb trees and so do big cats. Leopards are known for climbing up trees with their prey in tow, so they can eat without being disturbed by other predators. Cougars, cheetahs and even lions sometimes climb up trees.
7. Marking territory: Big cats and house cats alike will spray to scent-mark their territory with urine. Big cats like lions and jaguars will rub secretions from glands onto objects to mark them like your house cat rubs on you with the side of his face and neck to mark you as his.
8. Tight spaces: Your house cat likes to be in boxes and under the covers. Big cats like leopards and cheetahs like to be in dens. Both especially want small, private spaces when it comes time to give birth or nurse a wound.
9. Stripes and spots: Cats big and small have stripes, spots or rosettes throughout their coat. Big cats like cheetahs, leopards and tigers use their unique patterns for camouflage, while solid coats like that of the lion blend into open territory. House cats still have these patterns from their ancestor, the African wildcat, from which they descended 10,000 years ago when some African wildcats were brought to the Middle East and domesticated.
10. Grooming themselves: All cats big and small groom themselves. They have a sandpaper texture on their tongue, called “papillae,” that does double duty, helping cats work meat off of bones and work dirt out of their coats.
So when you tune into Big Cat Week tonight to watch Soul of the Cat and see a lion stalking a wildebeest or a leopard climbing up a tree, look down at your furry pal with a new appreciation for his genetic code and the awesome abilities he shares with his wild cousins.