The term big cat – which is not a biological classification – is used informally to distinguish the larger felid species from smaller ones. One definition of "big cat" includes the four members of the genus Panthera: the tiger, lion, jaguar, and leopard. Members of this genus are the only cats able to roar. A more expansive definition of "big cat" also includes the cheetah, snow leopard, clouded leopard, and cougar. Despite enormous differences in size, the various species of cat are quite similar in both structure and behavior, with the exception of the cheetah, which is significantly different from any of the big or small cats. All cats are carnivores and efficient apex predators. Their range includes the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Europe.
RoaringThe ability to roar comes from an elongated and specially adapted larynx and hyoid apparatus. (However, the snow leopard cannot roar, despite having hyoid morphology similar to roaring cats.) When air passes through the larynx on the way from the lungs, the cartilage walls of the larynx vibrate, producing sound. The lion's larynx is longest, giving it the most robust roar.
ThreatsThe principal threats to big cats varies upon geographical location, but primarily are habitat destruction and poaching. In Africa many big cats are persecuted by pastoralists or government 'problem animal control' officers. Certain protected areas exist that shelter large and exceptionally visible populations of lions, hyenas, leopards and cheetahs, such as Botswana’s Chobe, Kenya’s Masai Mara and Tanzania’s Serengeti. It is rather outside these conservation areas where persecution poses the dominant threat to large carnivores.
In the United States, 19 states have banned ownership of big cats and other dangerous exotic animals as pets, and the Captive Wildlife Safety Act bans the interstate sale and transportation of these animals.
- Genus Panthera (roaring or great cats)
- Tiger, Panthera tigris (Asia)
- Lion, Panthera leo (Africa, Gir Forest in India; extinct in former range of southeast Europe, Middle East, much of Asia, and North America)
- Jaguar, Panthera onca (the Americas; from the Southern United States and Mexico to northern Argentina)
- Leopard, Panthera pardus (Asia and Africa)
- Cheetah, Acinonyx jubatus (Africa and Iran; extinct in former range of India)
- Genus Puma
- Cougar, Puma concolor (North and South America)
- Genus Uncia
- Snow Leopard, Uncia uncia (mountains of central and south Asia)
- Bornean Clouded Leopard, Neofelis diardi (Borneo and Sumatra)
- Clouded Leopard, Neofelis nebulosa (southeast and south Asia)
Big Cats Facts
- The cheetah is the world's fastest land mammal. It can run at speeds of up to 70 miles an hour (113 kilometers an hour).
- An adult lion's roar can be heard up to five miles (eight kilometers) away.
- Long, muscular hind legs enable snow leopards to leap seven times their own body length in a single bound.
- A tiger's stripes are like fingerprints—no two animals have the same pattern.
- The strongest climber among the big cats, a leopard can carry prey twice its weight up a tree.
- The Amur leopard is one of the most endangered animals in the world.
- In one stride, a cheetah can cover 23 to 26 feet (7 to 8 meters).
- The name "jaguar" comes from a Native American word meaning "he who kills with one leap."
- In the wild, lions live for an average of 12 years and up to 16 years. They live up to 25 years in captivity.
- The mountain lion and the cheetah share an ancestor.
- Cheetahs do not roar, as the other big cats do. Instead, they purr.
- Tigers are excellent swimmers and do not avoid water.
- A female Amur leopard gives birth to one to four cubs in each litter.
- Fossil records from two million years ago show evidence of jaguars.
- Lions are the only cats that live in groups, called prides. Every female within the pride is usually related.
- The leopard is the most widespread of all big cats.
- Mountain lions are strong jumpers, thanks to muscular hind legs that are longer than their front legs.
- Tigers have been hunted for their skin, bones, and other body parts, used in traditional Chinese medicine.
- Unlike other cats, lions have a tuft of hair at the end of their tails.
- After humans, mountain lions have the largest range of any mammal in the Western Hemisphere.