Big cats are among the most powerful animals on the planet. They may look like oversized kitties, but they are ferocious predators. Most are “stalk and ambush” hunters, sneaking up on prey and pouncing to deliver a crushing bite to the head and neck. Wherever big cats live, they are at the top of the food chain.
The official list of big cats includes lions, tigers, jaguars, leopards, cheetahs, and snow leopards. Let’s get to know the Big Six!
Big cats all have furry coats, and except for lions, their coats have distinctive patterns that serve as camouflage so prey won’t see them coming. In Just So Stories, the author Rudyard Kipling proposes that the leopard got its spots to conceal itself in forests full of “speckly, patchy-blatchy shadows.” To hide, all the leopard has to do is “lie out on a leafy branch and look like sunshine sifting through the leaves.” But the leopard’s coat does even more: Leopards living in different environments evolve different coloration to help them melt into their surroundings. In cold climates, leopards have slightly gray fur, while leopards living in deserts have paler fur to match the landscape.
Most big cats are complete loners. But lions are social. They live together in prides on the grasslands of Africa, and spend much of the day snoozing on the ground or on rocks. At dusk, the pride becomes more active. They like to groom each other, nuzzling and licking each other’s heads and necks.
But the real action happens at night. That’s when the males patrol the pride’s territory, facing down any intruders and giving out roars that can be heard five miles away. Night is also the time when females go hunting—which they do as a group to increase their chances of catching big prey. Lions themselves weigh several hundred pounds, and they routinely go after prey that’s up to three times heavier. Sometimes that can be dangerous. A well-placed kick from a giraffe can actually kill a lion, and the sharp horns of a buffalo can cause serious injury.
The females coordinate their hunts carefully. Often, one lion will do the stalking until it is close enough to give chase and then leap onto the prey—usually a hoofed animal, such as a zebra, wildebeest, impala, or buffalo. The rest of the hunters then come running to bring the animal down—and to feed.
Cheetahs and lions often share the same grassland habitat in Africa, but use different hunting strategies. The cheetah is the fastest land animal in the world. With powerful lungs and long strides, it can run almost 70 miles per hour. Its technique is to stalk prey—small antelopes, warthogs, and hares—until it’s within a short distance and then put on a burst of incredible speed. Predator and prey race along, twisting and turning, until the cheetah gets alongside and trips the animal with its front paw. Once the prey is down, the cheetah grabs the prey by the throat. The cheetah needs to eat fast. Otherwise, its kill might end up being stolen by lions, hyenas, or even vultures.
Leopards are the most versatile of the big cats. They live in a wide variety of wild habitats from deserts to rain forests—and they eat all kinds of prey, everything from beetles and frogs to monkeys and big antelopes. They are also wonderful at hiding, which sometimes makes it possible for them to live close to cities without being detected. Three leopards were once found living in an urban train station in Uganda, and they have been known to snatch dogs from the suburbs of Mumbai, India.
Jaguars are super-predators and great at climbing, crawling, and pouncing. They eat a remarkably wide variety of animals, about 80 different species—from anacondas (the giant snakes of the Amazon), caimans, and turtles to tapirs, capybaras, and monkeys. Jaguars love water and they frequently take down prey by leaping on them from above and splashing down into rivers and streams.
Tigers are the biggest of the big cats. They are the only big cats with stripes. The stripes are like fingerprints—no two tigers are alike—and individuals can easily be identified by their coat patterns. That’s handy for humans who are researching tigers and want to keep track of who’s who. Among themselves, however, tigers use their sense of smell to identify one another. Each tiger has a special scent. Though tigers hunt alone, they will sometimes share food with tigers who they recognize as relatives.
Do you want to know something sad? More tigers live in zoos than in the wild. That’s because tigers and other big cats don’t have many wild places to live anymore. In 1900, there were about 100,000 tigers living in the wild. Today there are only about 3,200. Tigers once lived all across India, Asia, and Indonesia. Now they only survive in small fragments of their once-vast range. People have taken over larger and larger parts of tiger habitat.
In the shrinking habitats where tigers do survive, they are hunted and killed—even though it’s illegal. Most often, tigers are killed by poachers who sell tiger body parts—their bones, organs, and meat—to people who believe eating tigers can cure all kinds of diseases. No one ever really got cured of anything by eating ground-up tiger bones, but some people will still pay lots of money for illegal tiger parts.
Habitat loss and poaching are a double-whammy for tigers. But some wildlife scientists are trying to save big cats by changing people’s minds about hunting tigers for medicine, making tougher poaching laws and punishments, and protecting tiger habitats. One place where wild tiger populations are actually growing is the Nagarahole Tiger Reserve in India. There, anti-hunting laws are enforced, and the forest is rich in wildlife, with plenty of wild deer and antelope for tigers to hunt.
Snow leopards are also very rare cats—and a unique species. Only a few thousand survive in the wild, and they have a very particular habitat: rocky terrain in the mountains of central Asia at elevations above 9,800 feet. It’s freezing up there, and snow leopards have several strategies to cope with the cold. Their fur is thick, even covering their toes, and their big paws are like mini-snowshoes, helping them walk through snow without sinking. When females have cubs, they conceal them in cozy dens in the rocks.
When hunting, snow leopards hide among the rocks and cliff sides. They are extremely well camouflaged and hard to spot. When they see something they’d like to eat—a wild blue sheep or ibex (mountain goat)—these big cats can leap six times their own body length to capture it. Their long, bushy tails help them keep balance while in the air and climbing in treacherous territory.Written by Margaret Mittelbach.