The natural world is full of impressive predators. Our gardens are the hunting grounds of aggressively efficient mantids, dragonflies and wasps, each with their own unique methods of securing a meal.
Meanwhile, our skies are patrolled by feathered raptors equipped with binocular vision just waiting to drop onto their next unsuspecting prey.
Even the waterways around us are populated with hungry turtles, frogs and fish looking for some animal fast food.
Highly specialized predators live out their daily lives all around us, and I routinely count myself fortunate that humans are generally too big and undesirable to be considered prey to most.
About a third of the people in the United States don’t even have to leave their homes in order to observe a natural born killer. In fact, the semi-tame beasts we call house cats are small versions of some of the most accomplished hunters on this planet.
Most of the things that make cats such powerful predators are well studied. Their standard hunting procedure is waiting on an elevated perch for a wandering animal, and then pouncing on them when they least expect it.
The cat’s sharp retractable claws are then used to latch on as they sever their prey’s spinal cord using powerful teeth. It seems that a cat’s teeth are precisely spaced depending on their optimal prey – house cats have teeth that are close together and match the space between vertebrae in their small rodent prey, for example.
Cats tend to walk differently than most other 4-legged mammals, moving both legs on one side of the body at the same time in order to reduce the footprints and noise they generate.
It is believed that small wild cats began to approach human settlements at least 10,000 years ago, as agriculture really started to take off.
These first cats helped farmers defend their grain stores from hungry rodents, and humans began to rely on cats wherever they had food to protect. There was a point in time where cats were so important at keeping grain caches safe on ocean-faring vessels that some municipalities forbade a ship from leaving port without a resident feline.
The modern house cat is believed to have come from at least two lineages of small wild cat, one from Africa and the other southwest Asia.
These cats probably had a friendlier temperament than other cats around at the time, and were distributed throughout the ancient world through trade routes. America also has a wide range of wild cats native to the region, however most have been hunted or driven to the fringes of their ranges.
Scientists believe that before the end of the ice age, saber toothed cats were some of the most elite North American predators.
These ancient ambushers slowly relinquished their throne to the six species of wildcats known to be native in North America today.
Of those, the two that have been known to take up residence in Western North Carolina are bobcats and mountain lions. Mountain lions are large hunters who usually prefer deer over other prey; the last known local sighting was in the 1920s.
Bobcats are smaller, around 2-3 times the size of a normal house cat, and tend to eat rodents, birds and other small animals. Bobcats can still be occasionally seen in and around Sylva.
There is a healthy debate in the area about the exact species of Western Carolina’s catamount. Since the mascot took root in 1932, well past the last recorded mountain lion sighting, the catamount of today is probably a bobcat.
Known for their resilience and fighting prowess, I reckon it’s a good fit.
Brannen Basham and his wife, Jill Jacobs, operate Spriggly’s Beescaping, a business dedicated to the preservation of pollinators. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.