There are many different species of big cats in the world, and they vary in size, color, and temperament. Some of these cats are more well-known than others, but all of them are fascinating creatures.
Felidae is a taxonomic family that includes all cats. The family is divided into two subfamilies: Pantherinae, which includes lions, and Felinae, which includes domestic cats. The Pantherinae subfamily is made up of two genera: Panthera, Neofelis.
The genus Panthera is what most people think of when we talk about big cats – these species all have very similar head shapes, retractable claws and of course the ability to roar.
List of Big Cats
The lion (Panthera leo) is a large cat of the genus Panthera. It is native to Africa and India and is the second largest cat in the world, following the tiger.
While once found throughout much of Africa, Asia and Europe, lions are presently encountered in the wild only in Africa and in the Gir Forest of India (where it is found only in the Sasan-Gir National Park). A lions main habitats are open woodlands, savannas, scrub country and grassy plains.
Lions are known for their huge bodies and manes, and their social groups known as prides. One of the strongest felines in the world, they are apex predators and keystone predators, meaning they are extremely important in the food chain and have a large effect on the environment around them.
These big cats have become one of the most widely recognised animal symbols in human culture, extensively depicted in sculptures and paintings, on national flags, and in contemporary films and literature. Unfortunately, because of this, they are now a vulnerable animal, with their population decreasing.
As the world’s most social felines, there is lots to know about these amazing animals.
It is thought the lion evolved in eastern and southern Africa about 124,000 years ago. They were found in many areas of the world, including Europe, North and Central America, as well as in Africa and the Middle East and India.
Lions disappeared from North America about 10,000 years ago, from the Balkans about 2,000 years ago, and from Palestine during the Crusades. Now they only live in Africa and in India.
Lions are very large animals that can weigh between 120 kg—249 kg (264 lbs—550 lbs) with a length between 1.4m—2.5m (4.7ft—8.2ft). Lions have sexual dimorphism, meaning that females (lionesses) typically have a different appearance and a smaller size than males, which is a special characteristic that is not present in other cat species. The biggest lion ever recorded and documented was around 375 kg (827 lbs) in weight.
The Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris or Panthera tigris bengalensis) is sometimes known as the Royal Bengal tiger and is a subspecies of tiger.
The Bengal tiger is the second largest and the most common tiger subspecies. The Bengal tiger is primarily found in Bangladesh, India and also in Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and in southern Tibet.
The Bengal tiger inhabits in grasslands, subtropical and tropical rainforests (mostly Asian rainforests), scrub forests, wet and dry deciduous forests and mangroves. The Bengal tiger is the national animal of India and Bangladesh.
Bengal tigers are mostly solitary, however, they sometimes travel in groups of 3 or 4 individuals. Bengal tigers reside in the lowland parts of the rainforest where there are grasslands and swamps.
Despite their large size, Bengal tigers can climb trees effectively, however, they are not as agile as the smaller leopard, which hides its kills from other predators in the trees. Bengal tigers are also strong and frequent swimmers, often ambushing drinking or swimming prey or chasing prey that has retreated into water.
An average male Bengal tigers weigh around 420 pounds. The Bengal tiger has a body length of 6 feet and a tail length of 3 feet and therefore has a total length of 9 feet long. A female Bengal tiger is only 310 pounds and 8 feet long including tail.
Leopards are characterized by their striking fur of dark spots grouped in rosettes, that allow them to camouflage against their habitat. These big cats are also known for their strength, opportunistic hunting behavior and the ability to run very fast, at speeds of up to 58 km/h (36 mph).
The leopard is found across sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia. There are nine different sub-species of Leopard which differ in their appearance and geographic location, with the African Leopard being the most common and widespread. The others are the rare Amur Leopard, Sri Lankan Leopard, Javan Leopard, Indochinese Leopard, North-Chinese Leopard, Persian Leopard, Arabian Leopard and Indian Leopard.
Although African leopards are stable across most of their range, leopards are considered locally extinct in many countries they used to inhabit. Records suggest that the leopard occurs in only 25% of its historical global range. Five of the nine subspecies of these wild cats are listed as endangered or critically endangered, and the leopard species as a whole is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. This is largely down to habitat loss.
Leopards are medium sized, muscular animals with short limbs and a broad head. They are sexually dimorphic with males larger and heavier than females.
Males weigh between 37 and 90 kg (81.6 and 198.4 lb), and females weigh between 28 and 60 kg (61.7 and 132.3 lb). Males stand 60 to 70 cm (23.6 to 27.6 in) at the shoulder, while females are 57 to 64 cm (22.4 to 25.2 in) tall. The head-and-body length ranges between 90 and 196 cm (2 ft 11.4 in and 6 ft 5.2 in) with a 66 to 102 cm (2 ft 2.0 in to 3 ft 4.2 in) long tail.
The Jaguar (Panthera onca), is a New World mammal of the ‘Felidae family’. It is one of four ‘big cats’ in the ‘Panthera’ genus, along with the tiger, lion and leopard of the Old World. The jaguar is the third largest feline after the tiger and the lion. The jaguar is the largest and most powerful feline in the Western Hemisphere.
The Jaguars present range extends from Mexico (with occasional sightings in the southwestern United States) across much of Central America and south to Paraguay and northern Argentina.
The Jaguar is a compact and well-muscled animal. Rainforest jaguars are generally darker and considerably smaller than those found in open areas, possibly due to the fewer large herbivorous prey in forest areas. Jaguars grow to be about 1.62 – 1.83 metres (5.3 – 6 feet) in length and stand about 67 – 76 centimetres (27 – 30 inches) tall at the shoulders. Their tail is 2 – 3 feet (0.6 – 0.9 metres) long. Jaguars weigh around 36 kilograms (80 pounds). Larger jaguars have been recorded as weighing 131 – 151 kilograms (288 – 333 pounds).
The Snow Leopard is sometimes known as the ‘Ounce’. It is a large cat native to the mountain ranges of Central Asia and well known for its beautiful fur. The snow leopard’s range in central and south Asia is rugged mountainous regions of approximately 1,230,000 square kilometres, which extends through 12 countries: Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
The total wild population of the snow leopard is estimated at between 4,000 and 7,500 individuals. There are also 600 – 700 snow leopards in zoos around the world.
Although sharing its name with the common leopard, the snow leopard is not believed to be closely related to the Leopard or the other members of the Pantherine group and is classified as the sole member of the genus ‘Uncia uncia’.
The Snow Leopard has a white fur coat with brownish/yellow tinges that is covered with rings of brown/black rosettes/spots. The markings help camouflage it from prey. Their fur is long and woolly and helps protect the cat from extreme cold. Snow Leopards have heavy fur on their tail and the bottom of their paws are covered with fur for protection against the cold snow.
The snow leopard’s head, which has small ears and a distinctive heavy brow, is rounded and comparatively small for their body size, which can be up to 1.3 metres in length and weigh up to around 70 kilograms. Their long tail, which can measure as much as 90 centimetres, helps the cats balance as they move over rugged and often snowy terrain. The powerful limbs of the snow leopard are relatively short for their body size and are supported by large, powerful paws.
Due to the under-development of the fibro-elastic tissue that forms part of the vocal apparatus, the snow leopard cannot give a full, deep roar and this along with differences in skull characteristics help to separate them from their fellow ‘big cats’.
Other Large Cat Species
These cats are not part of the Pantherinae subfamily or “Big Cats” but are still large cats when compared to their domestic cat cousins.
The Puma (Puma concolor) is a large, graceful cat belonging to the felidae family. Pumas are also called Cougars, Panthers and Mountain Lions.
Pumas are solitary cats and have the largest ranges of all wild terrestrial mammals in the Western Hemisphere. Their range extends from Yukon, Canada to the Southern Andes in South America.
Although Pumas are large cats, they are not classed in the ‘big cat’ category. Instead, they are one of the largest cats of the ‘small cat’ category even though some can match the size of a leopard.
The Puma Cat is the fourth heaviest of the New World cats after the lion, leopard, jaguar and tiger. Adult Pumas are slender and agile cats who measure 2.4 metres (8 feet) in length from nose to tail (tail length is 80 centimetres (33 inches).
They stand between 60 – 76 centimetres (2 – 2.5 feet) tall at the shoulder and weigh around 53 – 72 kilograms (115 – 160 pounds) in males and 34 – 48 kilograms (75 – 105 pounds) in females.
The Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) is the fastest terrestrial animal in the world and is a unique member of the cat family ‘felidae’. The Cheetah appeared on Earth around 4 million years ago, well before the other big cats. The Cheetah is unique for its speed but lacks the ability to climb like other cats.
Cheetahs are smaller than leopards. Cheetahs typically reach 67 to 94 cm (26 to 37 in) at the shoulder and the head-and-body length is between 1.1 and 1.5 m (3 ft 7 in and 4 ft 11 in). Their weight can vary with age, health, location, sex and subspecies, but adults typically range between 21 and 72 kg (46 and 159 lb). Cheetahs have tails that usually measure around 31 inches (79 cm). While these animals are sexually dimorphic and males are larger than females, they are not to the extent seen in other large cats.
Once abundant all over African and Indian savannas and grasslands, this magnificent animal is now rare and only found in Africa and the Middle East.
Lynx is the name given to four wild cats from the felidae family. The four species of lynx are: the Canadian Lynx (Lynx canadensis), Eurasian (or Siberian) Lynx (Lynx lynx), Bobcat (Lynx rufus) also known as the wildcat and the Spanish (or Iberian) Lynx (Lynx pardinus). The Caracal, despite sometimes being called Persian Lynx or African Lynx, does not belong to this genus.
The Spanish lynx population continues to decline and it is one of the most endangered cats in the world. The Canadian lynx is becoming very rare in the northern United States due to hunting, habitat destruction and competition with the more aggressive bobcat.
The bobcat is the most successful out of all wildcats as it is highly adaptable both in habitat and prey. The Iberian lynx is one of the world’s rarest mammals and is rated as the most endangered cat species in the world because of its low population, limited number of habitats and its small range.
Lynx are medium sized cats whose coats of fur vary in color according to their climate range. Lynx in the southern regions of their range tend to be shorter haired, darker in color and have smaller paws, whereas in the Northern regions their coats are thicker and lighter in color (for camouflage), and their paws are larger and much more padded to deal with the cold and snow.
All species of lynx have white fur on their chests, bellies and on the insides of their legs. Lynx have short tails, long whiskers and characteristic tufts of black hair on the tip of the ears. Lynx have long front and hind legs that support their thickset body which measures 65 – 130 centimetres (26 – 51 inches) in length and weighs about 11 – 37 pounds (5 – 17 kilograms). Lynx have a tail length of 2 – 6 inches (5 – 16 centimetres).