Order Carnivora (coined 1821) is a biological classification including many species of mammals. Despite its name, which means ‘flesh devourers’ in Latin, not all ‘carnivorans’ are ‘carnivores’. Many are omnivorous, while some eat only plants. In terms of biological classification, it is an ‘order’, below class (mammals), and above family, species and subspecies. Their last common ancestor was a pangolin like creature who lived over 60 million years ago in the supercontinent of Laurasia.
Carnivorans often have thick fur, sharp teeth and higher than average intelligence. Their adaptability allowed them to thrive when other creatures went extinct. Carnivorans are native to every continent except Australasia and the Antarctic and often fill the role of the apex predator. Some live strictly on land, others at sea, some – like otters – live on both.
Carnivora has two suborders – Feliforma and Carniforma, to which cats and dogs belong respectively. They branched off 42 million years ago.
Caniforma encompasses those mammals with irretractable claws, long snouts and sharp teeth, and seals. Most eat meat. Some, like bears, are omnivores, some like pandas, are herbivores. Caniforms, whose name means ‘dog-like predators’ first evolved from a small marten-like creature who climbed trees and hunted in the forests of North America. 40 million years ago, some caniforms took to the sea and evolved fins in the place of paws, becoming the first seals. Caniforma’s families include:
- Canidae (wolves, dogs, coyotes, jackals, foxes etc)
- Ursidae (bears, including the giant panda)
- Mephitidae (skunks and stink badgers)
- Ailuridae (red pandas)
- Procynodae (raccoons, coatis and kinkajous)
- Mustelidae (weasels, badgers, otters, martens etc)
- Phocidae (earless seals)
- Otariidae (eared seals, including sea lions)
- Obobenidae (walruses)
Feliforma means ‘cat-like predators’. Its species are lither and have shorter snouts and fewer teeth than caniforms, better eyesight than smell and retractable claws. Feliforma evolved in the Old World and today most species live in the tropics of Africa and Southeast Asia. Many of its branches are now extinct. Those that remain include:
- Felidae (cats big and small)
- Nandiniidae (African palm civets)
- Prionodontidae (Asiatic linsangs)
- Viverridae (civets, genets and oyans)
- Hyenidae (Hyenas and aardwolves)
- Herspitidae (mongooses and meerkats)
- Eupliridae (Fossa and Malagasy mongooses)
Humans, by the way, belong to a different order entirely. As members of the primate family, we are more closely related to rodents and marsupials than any creature in the order Carnivora.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Brittanica, New Illustrated Animal Kingdom Volume 4