The ability to descend a tree or other steep surface is a rare trait among animals. Squirrels, are one species known for their ability to descend trees head first.
The ability to descend a tree head first requires joints in the animal’s rear legs to rotate with great flexibility. This condition is known as hypermobility, or double-jointed more commonly.
Why Can’t House Cats Walk Down From Trees?
Domestic cats often get stuck up in trees because while the range of their legs and sharp claws help them easily ascend, getting down in another matter. The claws on a cat help the cat to climb up a tree by puncturing the bark and anchoring the cat to the tree.
When a cat descends face first, those claws are facing the wrong way and the cat can’t steady itself when climbing down. In order to safely climb back down a tree, domestic cats have to back down. Cats who don’t understand how to do this often get stuck climbing up trees.
Hypermobility is the Key to Descending Trees Face First
While house cats lack the anatomy to descend trees face first, certain wild cats have the hypermobility needed. Three wild cats are known to be able to rotate their rear ankles 180 degrees.
These arboreal cats have adapted to a life that is spent significantly in trees. Hypermobility provides these cats with the ability to move swiftly up and down trees.
The ability to rotate their ankles 180 degrees also gives these three species of felines the ability to climb down trees by holding on with their hind legs only as well as the ability to hang from tree limbs with just one rear paw.
Three known species of wild cats are known to have evolved hypermobility: Margery, clouded leopards, and marbled cats.
The margay (Leopardus Wiedii) is considered by many researchers to be the most adapted to life in the trees. The margay is a small spotted cat that is native to Central and South America. Smaller than a house cat, the margay only weights 2.6 to 4 kg (5.7 to 8.8 lb).
Margays are found mostly in dense forests that range from tropical evergreen forest to tropical dry forest and high cloud forest. The wild cat’s range once extended as far north at Texas but is now distributed from Mexico through Central America to Brazil and Paraguay.
In addition to ankles that are able to rotate 180 degrees, margay cats have large paw pads that help them to grip tree bark. Nocturnal cats, the agility of margays helps them to hunt small primates and squirrels as well as amphibians, reptiles, birds and eggs.
The marbled cat (Pardofelis marmorata) is a small wild cat native with a distribution from eastern Himalayas to Southeast Asia. Like the margay cat, the marbled cat is also adapted to life in the trees and has the ability to rotate its ankles 180 degrees (Kitchener et al., 2010). This lets the marbled cat descend trees head first as well as hang on to a branch with one hind leg only.
The marbled cat lives in forest up to 2,500 m (8,200 ft) altitude. Similar in size to a domestic cat, the marbled cat weighs between 2 and 5 kg (4.4 and 11.0 lb).
These arboreal cats (Neofelis nebulosa) live in dense forests from the foothills of the Himalayas through mainland Southeast Asia into southern China.
The largest of the wild cats with hypermobility, clouded leopards weigh between 11.5 and 23 kg (25 and 51 lb).
Kitchener, A., Van Valkenburgh, B., & Yamaguchi, N. (2010). Felid form and function. In Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids (affiliate link) (pp. 83–106). Publisher: Oxford University PressEditors: D.W. Macdonald, A.J. Loveridge.
Morales, M. M., Moyano, S. R., Ortiz, A. M., Ercoli, M. D., Aguado, L. I., Cardozo, S. A., & Giannini, N. P. (2018). Comparative myology of the ankle of Leopardus wiedii and L. geoffroyi (Carnivora: Felidae): functional consistency with osteology, locomotor habits and hunting in captivity. Zoology, 126, 46-57. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.zool.2017.12.004
This article was originally written on December 30, 2020 and has since been updated.