1 December 2023

A caracal.

Do you know felines? To this question, many of us would be tempted to answer in the affirmative as these wild beauties, both powerful and graceful, mysterious and familiar, captivate our imagination. And then thirty-eight species, in all and for all, it’s not the sea to drink either. We are far from the 1,200 species of murids (mice, rats, voles, etc.), to stick to only mammals.

Now try to name them. The lion, the cat, the tiger, of course, three of the ten favorite animal species of the French. The cheetah, the leopard, the jaguar, the lynx, the puma… That makes eight – eleven, actually, because there are four species of lynx. One more effort and perhaps the snow leopard or even the ocelot will appear. And, except to enter the categories of fans or scholars, you will not go further. The oncilla, the margay? The fishing cat, the flat-headed cat? The manul, the colocolo?

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“It is in particular to make people discover this little-known diversity that we have designed this exhibition for the general public”, says its project manager, Sophie Grisolia. From March 22 to January 7, 2024, the Grand Gallery of Evolution at the National Museum of Natural History offers visitors the opportunity to enter the large family of felids. To measure its variety, beyond the three species existing in France (domestic cat, wild cat, lynx), and to discover its ancestor – the proailurus (and not the famous “sabre-toothed tiger”, from which no current feline is descended).

Nine thousand years of love

And to dive, above all, into the astonishing biology of these fantastic predators, “hypercarnivores”, kings of the lookout, as patient in waiting as they are quick to pounce, even if their hunting success rate rarely exceeds 20 %. Fine hearing, night vision, a delicate touch, both with the paws and with the whiskers, a coat allowing better camouflage… Throughout the exhibition, the giant scenes, created thanks to the work of the workshop of taxidermy of the Museum, are side by side with the videos and the explanatory showcases: here the retractable claws, there the rough tongue, precious both for scouring the bones and for chasing parasites from its own coat, or even this mystery which allows cats to fall on their legs.

Puma skeleton.
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The cat, exactly. The only feline that has been successfully domesticated, and as such sets the pace for the entire exhibition. Of course, humans have cohabited with lions, made them demi-gods and partners in circus games. Others tried to hunt with cheetahs as auxiliaries. Without convincing. With the domestic cat, on the other hand, the love story began at least nine thousand years ago, in the Near East – the oldest tomb found where the skeleton of a human and that of a cat lived together is here reconstructed. And if Christianity has long mistreated tomcats, especially black ones, since the 19e century, the nobility and independence of the animal conquered the human species. In France, the number of cats even exceeded that of dogs in 2010, reaching 16 million at the last census, in 2021, 600 million worldwide. Only baby birds and bats complain about it. But cat or man, whose fault is it?

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