Wild Cats of the World. Sundquist, M., and F. Sundquist. 2002. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL. 462 pp. (452). $45.00. ISBN 0–226–77999–8.
In the lineage of cat researchers, Mel Sunquist and his students have captured, radio-collared, and studied a wider diversity of wild cats (30 species and counting) than any other group of wildlife biologists. What better person than he and his wife Fiona, an accomplished nature writer in her own right, to produce the update to C. A. W. Guggisberg's Wild Cats of the World? Mel began his work on wild cats in 1975 by studying the use of space and movements of the tiger. He completed the first radiotelemetry study of tigers in Royal Chitwan National Park, Nepal (where he met and worked with Fiona). Their pioneering effort, and their fascination with all wild felids large and small, led to this volume. The field work of many of Mel's students figures prominently in the accounts of the diverse species covered in this impressive work.
The book begins with an introduction accessible to the lay reader but that includes information that will be new to even a knowledgeable carnivore biologist. Starting with a basic discussion of the body plan of cats and special adaptations to a hunting lifestyle, the introduction also provides a quick summary of the cat family's taxonomy. Here are some surprises for the amateur cat systematist. How many people would place the jaguarundi, a diurnal felid of tropical America that most closely resembles a mustelid, in with the puma and the cheetah? Why isn't the puma in with the other big cats such as jaguars, lions, leopards, and tigers? Why is the African caracal, which seems like a high-jumping version of a lynx, placed with its nearest relative, the African golden cat? Why is the insertion of the mysterious clouded leopard within the group of large roaring cats (tigers, leopards, lions, and jaguars) so problematic?
To learn the answers to these questions, the reader must consult the series of detailed species accounts that form the bulk of the book's 452 pages. The 38 species accounts are actually a pleasure to read, studded with information about little-known taxa such as the kodkod and the bay cat, as well as the more familiar cheetah and lion. From the first account of the cheetah to the last account of the snow leopard, the book is a library of fascinating bits of natural history, mixed in with serious consideration of evolutionary questions regarding cat behavior and information useful for conservation. For example, how did the cheetah get its name? Answer: The word cheetah comes from Hindi, meaning spotted or sprinkled. Over 400 years ago, cheetahs used to range across India and chase blackbuck antelope just as they chase impala and Thompson's gazelles today on the African savannas. How does cooperative hunting behavior in the cheetah vary with prey size, and why isn't sociality more common among wild cats? Answer: Tim Caro, an expert on cheetahs, points out that male cheetahs hunt in groups to catch larger prey such as wildebeest and alone for smaller prey items. He also hypothesizes that large prey may not be abundant enough to support group hunting for most species of wild felids. Why is conservation on private ranches an important element of cheetah conservation in Namibia, one of the species' last strongholds? Answer: 95% of Namibia's approximately 2500 wild cheetahs live on private ranches and farms, and the owners of the land also own the wildlife on it. One farmer has reduced livestock predation by cheetahs to zero by placing donkeys in with the livestock. Donkeys keep hungry cheetahs at bay.
Each entry is organized into a standard format that facilitates finding information quickly. After a general introduction that details the history of knowledge of the species and the species' relationship to humans, there is a physical description and a section on past and current geographic distributions. The section on ecology and behavior provides information on feeding ecology, social organization, reproduction, and development. Entries vary greatly in length, in accordance with the existing body of knowledge among species. The accounts conclude with information on status in the wild and in captivity and on conservation efforts. Most accounts include a table on measurements and weights of the species and a table on food habits, which range from cursory accounts to information based on large sample sizes from several locales across the species' geographic range. Finally, at the end of each account there is an extensive list of citations, which are extraordinarily valuable because the Sunquists clearly undertook substantial excavation to find some relatively obscure references. It would be of great value to those studying cats if a database containing these references could be put on the World Wide Web, as Kees Rookmaaker has done for references on the five species of rhinoceroses. Perhaps this is an undertaking for the World Conservation Union's Cat Specialists Group.
If this book is truly comprehensive in its synthesis of information, then the amount of knowledge we have about wild felids is strongly positively correlated with their body size. I examined this relationship by correlating body mass with the number of pages devoted to each species (R= 0.7871) and the number of citations found in each account (R= 0.6706). In reality, our knowledge of wild felids can be split or lumped into three categories: the 20 species of <10 kg about which we know little; the 9 species between 10 and 20 kg, for which our knowledge is somewhat more extensive (exceptions in this group are the bobcats and the three lynx species, all of which reside in northern temperate and developed nations that have an abundance of field biologists and naturalists); and the 8 species of >20 kg for which there is much more information.
Every major taxon has its cluster of poorly known species, but it is surprising that we know so little about so many cats, even though this family of mammals holds great fascination for humans. Obviously, cats' low densities, secretive and often nocturnal behavior, and tendency to avoid humans make them a challenging subject for study. The Sunquists address this problem and potential solutions in one of the three concluding chapters devoted to recent advances in field techniques. The expanded use of infrared camera traps and satellite telemetry technologies, as well as molecular techniques for analyzing the feces and hair samples of tropical felids and their prey, will help fill gaps in the natural history data for a host of species. Without doubt, the biggest knowledge gaps in felid behavior correspond to land tenure, variation in spacing among the sexes and age classes, and dispersal patterns—information that is fundamental to conservation. We know from the work of Ullas Karanth, one of Mel Sunquist's students, that tigers are relatively poor dispersers. But information on this critical characteristic is cursory or absent for other felid species. As we begin to design conservation landscapes that target large felids and other carnivores, more accurate data and larger sample sizes are essential. The penultimate chapter is an excellent summary of the history of relocating wild cats, a topic that will certainly gain in prominence as wild cat populations become increasingly pressured in human-dominated landscapes. The clear message here is that conserving large blocks of habitat will be far cheaper and successful in the long term than rescue attempts involving translocations. The data on reintroduction of cats from captivity to the wild should put to rest the idea that this is a feasible option.
My one gripe about this book it is that the last chapter, “Conserving Felids in the Twenty-first Century,” deserved a more thorough treatment. There is so much to say about this subject that a two-page chapter seems like an afterthought rather than a core theme of the book. Fortunately, other publications cover this topic, and these are all listed in the abundant citations.
Six appendices cover other aspects of felid biology such as vocal and olfactory communication and reproduction. The color photographs are excellent, and the overall writing is so crisp and informative that many readers will be drawn back again and again to the species accounts. Priced at $45.00, this book is a bargain and should be on the shelf of every terrestrial ecologist interested in cats, predator-prey interactions, and theories of top-down community regulation. And, for indoor naturalists, there is even an extensive chapter on the biology and behavior of the house cat. We owe the Sunquists a great debt for turning a lifelong personal fascination with cats into a solid, comprehensive publication accessible to everyone.