Big Cats: Hunting Down the Facts

If you are a cat person, you probably love rubbing noses with your little feline friends and listening to them purr as they rub up against you for a good scratch. But, although they have significant amount of shared DNA, it’s unlikely that you or I will ever get up close and personal with any of the big cats.

It’s no wonder big cats can be so mysterious. While most of us probably won’t spend enough time with big cats to get to know what they’re all about, we can educate ourselves in two ways: first, observing their closely-tied relative, the domestic cat; and second, by reading what scientists have learned about them. Perhaps this can make big cats a little less mysterious and make humans a lot more likely to protect them.

To start understanding big cats better, we wanted to start with some of the basics: Just what are they? And what is their role on this magnificent earth?

Species of Big Cats

There are close to 40 species of felids, ranging from the small house cat to the king of the jungle, but around nine of them are considered “big cats,” according to BigCatsWildCats. The list of smaller wild cats is much longer and includes species such as lynx, bobcats, margays, and ocelots.

The list of big cats, as listed by BigCatsWildCats, includes cheetahs, clouded leopards, cougars, jaguars, leopards, lions, snow leopards, Sundaland clouded leopards, and tigers. Cats are obligate carnivores, and are also referred to as hypercarnivores, because they need a much higher proportion of protein in their diets than most other mammals.

Where do they reside?

An interesting point about felids in general, is that they live in virtually any habitat, from desert to subarctic. They have also been around for 30 million years or so, outliving many other carnivores, according to Luke Hunter, President and Chief Conservation Officer of Panthera, in an interview with National Geographic. When asked about the species’ success, Hunter attributes it to their body design. Cats are efficient hunters, have acute senses, extreme muscular strength, and unmatched reflexes to name a few.

The design is in the detail

Speaking of design, let’s look more closely at some physical features of cats—physics, after all, is a primary reason for their superior hunting abilities. The tiger is the largest member of the family, and is classified into nine subspecies. These range in size from the smaller Sumatrans (up to 242 pounds for females and up to 310 pounds for males) to the largest tigers such as Indians (up to 352 pounds for females and up to 570 pounds for males), according to the Smithsonian National Zoological Park. Tigers often prey on wild boar and deer, and they eat a whopping 33 to 40 pounds of meat in an average night!

Now the cheetah, on the other hand, is much smaller in comparison. It definitely has some interesting physics: a flexible spine that helps its running stride and speed, a large heart and lungs, and large nostrils to allow air flow and efficient breathing while running top speeds. The cheetah is significantly lighter than the tiger—weighing in between 75 and 145 pounds—but it is certainly the fastest runner. The fastest land speed of any animal ever recorded, 61 miles per hour, was a cheetah at the Cincinnati Zoo, according to National Geo WILD’s series “Big Cat Week.”

Some cats don’t hold a candle to the cheetah’s speed, but they are excellent climbers, something the cheetah does not excel at. For instance, the cougar spends a lot of its time up in trees, and can jump 15 feet straight up in the air. The cougar is also called the puma, mountain lion, Florida panther, red tiger, and catamount, according to BigCatsWildCats. Even though the cougar climbs well, scientist point out that the clouded leopard and margay are the best climbers, with the margay being able to rotate its paws 180 degrees, according to National Geo WILD’s series “Big Cat Week.”

What’s another physical property that allows cats to be such amazing hunters? Teeth! As you would expect, all cats have great teeth, but some for different reasons than others. The clouded leopard has very long canines, and are good hunters because they sometimes do skull bites. The lion has extremely strong jaw muscles, great puncturing power, and can really lock onto its prey without letting go, according to National Geo WILD’s series “Big Cat Week.” The bite force of a cat also comes into play when hunting. Scientists have calculated that the jaguar can generate 250 pounds of bite force and lions and tigers have about 400 pounds of bite force at the tip of their canines!

These are just a few of the physical qualities that make big cats such successful predators. Clearly there is a lot more to know about these animals, and we haven’t even scratched the surface (pun intended!). If you are at all interested, we highly encourage you to research big cats on your own.

The predator’s predator

So, with such amazing hunting capabilities and survival skills, what other animal could possibly be a threat to big cats? If you guessed humans, you are correct. Humans may not always be a “direct threat,” but no doubt our activities affect their survival. Stay tuned to our Big Cat Series in the future as we delve into what threatens the species’ survival and their conservation status.

Take action!

How can you be involved with big cats? For now, we encourage you to read, watch videos and documentaries, whatever you can to educate yourself about them. Share what you learn with friends. 



*Photos courtesy of Art of Albertine


-Elaine DeSimone

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