This website is dedicated to the FELIDA Big Cat Centre

Late 2013, the FOUR PAWS foundation took over, and renovated, a struggling rescue centre in Nijeberkoop: FELIDA Big Cat Centre was born. Below is an impression of the work that followed and the positive effect it has had on the animals.

I am very grateful – Jeroen Rinkel

About the evolutionary history of felids

Published: 24 December 2016

Translated by: Diana Stricker

Once upon a time...

Aren't the conditions for our existence fascinating? The fact that there is one continuous, uninterrupted, line of relatively short living individuals, between you and the origin of life on earth many million years ago? Many species have gone extinct, but the line to you, and all the lines to countless lifeforms with whom we share this planet today, have remained intact. This website sheds light on the origin of felids (members of the Felidae family). To start with the fifth mass extinction.

The extinction of the dinosaurs, about 65 million years ago, is generally seen as the fifth mass extinction in the history of life on earth. Even though the earliest mammals surfaced around 220-225 million years ago, they didn't start to dominate earth until after the dinosaurs disappeared. The first felid evolved from small, marten-like predators, belonging to the Miacidae family. The Miacidae existed after the extinction of the dinosaurs and before the felids came into existence.


Back to Feliformia.


The 'true' cat family.


Miacids are thought to have evolved into the modern carnivorous mammals of the order Carnivora.


Caniformia is one of two suborders within the order Carnivora, the other being Feliformia. Carniformia comprises the 'dog-like' mammals.

Nimravidae †

'False' sabre-toothed cat. Among other things, the bone structure of the ear was different compared to 'true' cats.


African palm civet.

Barbourofelidae †

'False' sabre-toothed cat.


Members of this family are commonly called civets or genets.




Eupleridae is a family of carnivorans endemic to Madagascar.



Stenoplesictidae †

Stenoplesictidae is the name of a family of extinct 'civet-like' animals.

[source] Paleocene 66 - 56 Ma Eocene 56 - 33.9 Ma Oligocene 33.9 - 23 Ma Miocene 23 - 5.3 Ma Pliocene 5.3 - 2.6 Ma Pleistocene 2.6 - 0.01 Ma Holocene 0.01 - 0 Ma Caniformia Miacidae Nimravidae † Nandiniidae Felidae Barbourofelidae † Viverridae Hyaenidae Eupleridae Herpestidae Stenoplesictidae †

Proailurus †

Proailurus is known to be the 'first cat'.

Pseudaelurus †

The common ancestor of the extinct 'true' sabre-toothed cats.

Styriofelis †

The common ancestor of the present day felids.


The subfamily comprising all 'true' sabre-toothed cats. In order to keep a good overview, not all genera are shown.

Homotherium †

An genus of scimitar-toothed cats. One species, Homotherium latidens, has also been found in the Netherlands.

Megantereon †

Megantereon may have been the ancestor of Smilodon.

Smilodon †

Possibly the most famous sabre-toothed cat. Three species are recognised within the genus Smilodon (S. gracilis, S. fatalis and S. populator), all of which lived on the American continents.


The subfamily Felinae includes small to medium-sized cats, although the group does include some larger animals, such as the puma and cheetah. In order to keep a good overview, not all genera are shown.


Small to medium sized cats.

Miracinonyx †

The extinct American cheetah.


The only extant member of this genus is the cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus).


The subfamily Pantherinae comprises the big cats, although this group also holds the smaller clouded leopards (Neofelis). In order to keep a good overview, not all genera are shown.


The genus Panthera holds the lion, the tiger, the leopard and the jaguar. Some taxonomists believe the snowleopard also belongs here. The extinct cave lions were also a part of this group.

Oligocene 33.9 - 23 Ma Miocene 23 - 5.3 Ma Pliocene 5.3 - 2.6 Ma Pleistocene 2.6 - 0.01 Ma Holocene 0.01 - 0 Ma Proailurus † Pseudaelurus † Styriofelis † ← Feliformia Felis Panthera Miracinonyx † Acinonyx Pantherinae Felinae Machairodontinae Homotherium † Megantereon † Smilodon †
This phylogeny is only an approximation. The tab 'Feliformia' shows the evolutionary history of the suborder Feliformia, which includes all 'cat-like' carnivores (including the felids). The tab 'Felidae' shows the evolutionary history of felids.

The origin of felids is not entirely known. The first felid appeared around 25-30 million years ago. Many palaeontologists view Proailurus as the 'first cat'. About 15-18 million years ago, Proailurus diverged into the two closely related genera Pseudaelurus and Styriofelis. Pseudaelurus is regarded as the ancestor of the subfamily Machairodontinae (which held the, now extinct, 'true' sabre-toothed cats). Styriofelis is regarded as the common ancestor of the subfamilies Felinae (the present day 'small cats') and Pantherinae (the present day 'big cats').

The earliest evidence in the fossil record of present day cats, who existed next to the 'true' sabre-toothed cats for a long time, is about 9-11 million years old. In a relatively short period this line (Felinae) was split up into eight ancestral lineages: Panthera, Bay cat, Caracal, Ocelot, Lynx, Puma, Leopard cat and Domestic cat. New variation, that has led to a total of at least 38 living species we distinguish today (as well as a number of species that went extinct), would have arisen approximately 3-6 million years ago.

The ancestral lineage Panthera, which includes only two genera (Panthera and Neofelis), is the only line included within the subfamily Pantherinae. The other seven ancestral lineages belong to the subfamily Felinae. An alternative approach exists, which relies more on genetic affinities, placing all eight lineages in the Felinae subfamily.

A short-faced bear (Arctotherium bonariense) is interested in the dinner of two sabre-toothed cats (Smilodon populator).
South America.

© Velizar Simeonovski

'Cat-like' families also existed outside of the Felidae family, that exhibited similar characteristics (such as sabre-teeth), like Nimravidae and Barbourofelidae (the 'false' sabre-toothed cats; eventually, they had to make way for the Felidae). The term convergent evolution is used when similar features independently develop in non-related, or hardly related, taxonomic groups. Thylacosmilus atrox is another example of a species that wasn't a felid, but still developed sabre-teeth.

Did you know that the flattened canines of sabre-toothed cats were as sharp as a knife?

During the last ice age (or, glacial), the Netherlands, and the North Sea, which had fallen dry at that time, were a part of a vast and open landscape that we know as a mammoth steppe. An impressive array of fauna lived on these expansive plains. Some examples are the Eurasian cave lion (Panthera spelaea), the cave hyena (Crocuta spelaea), the cave bear (Ursus spelaeus), the brown bear (Ursus arctos), the wolf (Canis lupus), the woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius), the woolly rhinoceros (Coelodonta antiquitatis), the steppe bison (Bison priscus), the muskox (Ovibos moschatus), the reindeer (Rangifer tarandus), the Irish elk (Megaloceros giganteus), the saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica), the wild horse (Equus lenensis), and the European ass (Equus hydruntinus). Besides these, the Netherlands has also known a sabre-toothed cat (or, rather scimitar-toothed cat), namely Homotherium latidens.

A pair of scimitar-toothed cats (Homotherium latidens) is chasing an Irish elk (Megaloceros).
Somewhere along the Thames.

© Velizar Simeonovski

Remains have also been found of the European jaguar (Panthera gombaszoegensis) in the Netherlands. Nowadays the jaguar is known primarily as a South- and Middle American cat, but the species does not originate there. The ancestors of the American jaguar made the crossing from Asia to North America, via the Bering land bridge, about a million years ago. It is unknown what caused the extinction of the jaguar in the 'Old World'.

The extinction of species is a normal phenomenon that knows several causes. In most cases, it involves a complex chain of events that we don't fully understand. Influential factors are i.e. climate change, competition from new species and human interference.

There is no clarity about the extinction of sabre-toothed cats. It is tempting to look for the cause in their most prominent feature, that after which they were named. Some people think that sabre-toothed cats had become too specialised and that they could not adapt quickly enough to an environment in which big prey became rapidly extinct. Yet other predators, like the American lion (Panthera atrox) and the American cheetah (Miracinonyx), which lived in similar conditions but without sabre-teeth, also became extinct in the same period as Smilodon. The extraordinary teeth of the sabre-toothed cat cannot, in themselves, be viewed as the primary reason for the animal's extinction. Also, Smilodon's dental records do not show that it went hungry. We simply do not yet know the answer.

Did you know that the clouded leopard has, proportionally, the longest canines of all living felids?

Often, we are so fascinated by the mega fauna that disappeared during the ice age, that we tend to forget that there are also ice age survivors. On the American continents, those are species like the jaguar, the puma, and the coyote. If palaeontologists would be able to figure out why those species did manage to survive, then maybe we will also be able to better understand why other species did not make it.

A bull mastodon (Mammut americanum) disturbs an eastern puma (Puma concolor couguar) at its kill.
The West Shore of Lake Michigan.

© Velizar Simeonovski

Humanity is being looked at, nowadays, as the initiator of the sixth mass extinction. Which members of the Felidae family will, in a world that is overrun by people, be able to survive in the long run? And do you think, in light of convergent evolution, that sabre-toothed cats are exclusively a thing of the past? Or might they someday, maybe even after the extinction of mankind, roam the globe in big numbers again?

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Bengal tiger
(Panthera tigris tigris)
Sabre-toothed cat
(Smilodon populator)

The sabre-toothed cat could spread its jaws open wider than present day felids. This was necessary to be able to use the canines effectively. Present day felids, however, have a larger bite force. Present day felids kill their prey mainly by squeezing shut the throat (chocking). Sabre-toothed cats probably killed their prey much quicker by cutting through the arteries and trachea (windpipe).

* * *

Our animals

Rescue centres would not be necessary if there were no zoos or circuses that keep big cats in captivity because we, as a society, feel a need for tigers and lions as a means of entertainment and education. I feel it is our – society as a whole – responsibility to care for these animals as best we can. They are our animals, in the broadest sense of the word, because all of us can influence their fate.

Onca at FELIDA
Dehli and Rhadja at FELIDA

There are many ways in which you can contribute to a better life for our animals. A good way is to support a rescue centre, like FELIDA Big Cat Centre. You can do this by becoming a volunteer, donating items, or by becoming a benefactor. Personally, I like it when people come up with their own way to use their talent, knowledge, and skill for a good cause. That conviction is the basis for this website.

Jeroen Rinkel

With compliments to the FOUR PAWS foundation and FELIDA Big Cat Centre.

With special thanks to Simone Schuls and Barbara van Genne,
and everyone who made this possible.

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