Panthera is a genus of large, wild cats in the mammalian family, Felidae, and includes the four, well-known living species of the lion (Panthera leo), the tiger (Panthera tigris), the jaguar (Panthera onca), and the leopard (Panthera pardus). These four extant cat species are considered unique in having the anatomical changes enabling them to roar. The cave lion is an example of an extinct member of this genus.
The Panthera genus comprises about half of the seven extant species in the Pantherinae subfamily (known as the "big cats"), the other species typically belonging to the genera Neofelis and Uncia, although taxonomy has been continually in flux. The name panther sometimes is used to designate collectively cats in this subfamily.
The debate and taxonomic revisions to which Pantera has been subjected, as well as Felidae in general, is because of an effort to organize taxonomic groups according to shared lineage. Morphological, behavior, and genetic studies all are employed as human beings try to discern which groups are naturally related, based on a common descent. In some taxonomies, the snow leopard is included within the genus Panthera as well.
The Panthera genus is part of the Felidae family of the mammalian order Carnivora. Members of the family are called "cats" or "felid," and sometimes "felines." Felids number about 41 species, including large animals such as the lion (Panthera leo) and the tiger (Panthera tigris), as well as smaller ones such as the bobcat (Lynx rufus) and the domestic cat (Felis catus).
Felidae is usually divided into the "big cats" of the subfamily Pantherinae and the "small cats" of the subfamily Felinae. (Note that some "small cats," for instance the cougar (Puma concolor), can weigh as much or more as some of the "big cats.") Included in Pantherinae are the clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa), the Bornean clouded leopard (Neofelis diardi), the snow leopard ((Uncia uncia), and four species in the genus Panthera: Genus Panthera
Only these four extant cat species in Panthera have the anatomical changes enabling them to roar. The primary reason for this was assumed to be the incomplete ossification of the hyoid bone. However, new studies show that the ability to roar is due to other morphological features, especially of the larynx. The snow leopard (which is sometimes included within Panthera) does not roar. Although it has an incomplete ossification of the hyoid bone, it lacks the special morphology of the larynx (Nowak 1999).
The word "panther" is often presumed to derive from Greek pan- ("all") and ther ("beast"), but this may be a folk etymology. Although it came into English through the classical languages, panthera is probably of East Asian origin, meaning "the yellowish animal," or "whitish-yellow" (Harper 2001).
Like much of the Felidae family, Panthera has been subject to much debate and taxonomic revision. At the base of the genus is probably the extinct felid Viretailurus schaubi, which is sometimes also regarded as an early member of the Puma group. Panthera has likely derived in Asia, but the definite roots of the genus remain unclear.
The divergence of the Pantherine cats (including the living genera Panthera, Uncia, and Neofelis) from the Felinae (including all other living cat species) has been ranked between six and ten million years ago (Johnson et al. 2006). The fossil record points to the emergence of Panthera just 2 to 3.8 million years ago (Turner 1987).
Morphological and genetic studies have suggested that the tiger was the first of the recent Panthera species to emerge from the lineage (Yu and Zhang 2005), but this remains unresolved. The snow leopard originally was seen as being at the base of the Panthera, but newer molecular studies suggest, that it is nestled within Panthera, and may be even a sister species of the leopard (Yu and Zhang 2005). Many thus place the snow leopard within the genus Panthera (Johnson et al. 2006; Yu and Zhang 2005; Janczewski et al. 1996), but there is currently no consensus whether snow leopard should retain its own genus, Uncia (Shoemaker 1996; IUCN 2002) or be moved to Panthera uncia (Johnson et al. 2006; Yu and Zhang 2005; Janczewski et al. 1996; Johnson and O'Brien 1997).
A prehistoric feline, probably closely related to the modern jaguar, is Panthera gombaszogensis, often called European jaguar. This species appeared first around 1.6 million years ago in what is now Olivola in Italy.
The clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) generally is placed today at the base of the Panthera group, but is not included in the genus Panthera itself (Johnson et al. 2006; Yu and Zhang 2005; Johnson and O'Brien 1997; Jancewski et al. 1996).
There have been many subspecies of all four Panthera species suggested; however, many of the leopard and lion subspecies are questionable. Recently it has been proposed that all sub-Saharan populations of leopards are all the same leopard subspecies, and all sub-Saharan populations of lions likewise belong to the same lion subspecies, as they do not have sufficient genetic distinction between them. Some prehistoric lion subspecies have been described from historical evidence and fossils. They may have been separate species.
The "black panther" is not a distinct species but is just the common name for black (melanistic) specimens of the genus, most often encountered in jaguar and leopard species.
(Extinct species and subspecies are indicated with the symbol †)
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