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We may think of lions as diurnal — they're always shown being active during the day on nature shows — while domestic cats certainly seem annoyingly nocturnal when they're knocking stuff off your dresser at 2 a.m. That is more or less true, but neither feline is completely locked into a schedule. "Most cats are fairly flexible about whether they're nocturnal or diurnal, because they're adapting to their prey and the weather and the time of year," Bradshaw explains.
But you can see their differing tendencies reflected in their anatomy. Large eyes are a clue that an animal hunts at night, and the cat's eyes are much bigger in proportion to the head than the eyes of lions, which tend to hunt in daylight. "Cats descended from animals who tend to hunt at night," Bradshaw says. "Lions do hunt and move around at night — people who go on safari will tell you that lions roar at night — but generally speaking [they] do most of their hunting during the day, and the way their vision is constructed tells you that."
Aside from their size, lions and cats are physically different in a few important ways. For one thing, lions roar and don't purr; cats purr and can't roar. That is because the anatomy in their throats is different. Although it's so familiar, purring was long a scientific mystery. Once thought to be made by the blood rumbling in the chest, we now know the purr comes from the larynx, and close examination of a sonogram shows that there's a subtle difference in the sound of the breath in and the breath out. Lions have an additional rigid structure in their throats that prevents purring but allows them to roar.
Like cats, the claws of lions are what people often call " retractable," although Bradshaw says that they're more correctly called protractile: Their resting position is tucked in, and there are muscles that thrust them out when needed. Why? Compare them to another cat, the cheetah. "The cheetah is unusual because it's a running animal, more like a dog," Bradshaw says. "The claws can't retract, so they wear down all the time." Claws that stick out help with traction when running, but for lions and domestic cats, it's important to keep their tools in good condition. "They keep them tucked in all the time because they use them in hunting and they need to keep them sharp," he says.
Cats, lions and many other animals have what Bradshaw likes to call a "second nose." That extra nose — the vomeronasal organ in the roof of the mouth — analyzes airborne chemicals much the way that the human nose does. If you've ever been mystified when your cat pauses and makes a funny face, you're probably seeing what's called the flehmen response, which happens when an animal is using that organ. But you may not have noticed it because it's much less obvious in cats than in lions. "The whole top lip goes up and the teeth are exposed, and the lion almost goes into a trance," he says, as you can see in this video. "Once you've seen it in a lion, it's easier to recognize in your cat."
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