101 Facts – Big Cats

South Chinese Tiger (Panthera tigris amoyensis) in Shanghai Zoo. Image credit: J. Patrick Fischer, cc3.0
South Chinese Tiger (Panthera tigris amoyensis) in Shanghai Zoo. Image credit: J. Patrick Fischer, cc3.0

101 Facts BIG CATS …Amazing Animal Books

101 big cats book

Over 101 amazing facts about these ferocious yet awe-inspiring animals.

For video footage…



The Smilodon
Diet and Hunting
Snow leopards
Clouded leopard
Eurasian lynx
Photo Credits


Cats are funny, lovable creatures. At least, the ones we have in our homes are. Their larger cousins, the big cats, may look just as cute, but they are some of the fiercest predators on the planet.

Big Cats at Home by Graham Dean


All cats belong to the family Felidae and, as such, are called felids. This family is fairly young, having only been around for eighteen million years, with most of its member species having evolved only in the past one million years.

The ancestor of today’s cats, however, lived sixty to thirty million years ago. They were called miacids and were small creatures with long bodies and long tails. Eventually, the miacids split into two lines – one line evolved into the bears and dogs, and the other to hyenas, mongooses, civets, and cats.

Many of the prehistoric cats were not true cats, but cat-like mammals. One such animal was the marsupial lion which, like other marsupials, had a pouch, but unlike most marsupials, had cat-like claws. It also had a long, muscular tail like a kangaroo’s.

The first true cat was the Proailurus, which existed about thirty million years ago. It was about the size of a weasel and had short but strong legs.

Between twenty-five million years ago to eighteen million years ago, very few cat and cat-like creatures were found, according to the fossil record. As a result, this period has been called the ‘cat gap’. The reason for this remains a mystery, though scientists believe it may have been caused by climate changes.

The Machairodontinae subfamily, which consisted of the famous saber-toothed cats, first appeared twenty-three million years ago. They had long, flattened canines, much like daggers. Some of them had long, thin legs, while others had short and stocky legs.

An artist’s impression of a saber-toothed cat by John Cummings

The Dinofelis was a genus of cats in the Machairodontinae subfamily that lived up to 1.5 million years ago. They were about the size of today’s jaguar, living up to their name, which literally means ‘giant cat’.

The Xenosmilus is another extinct genus from the same subfamily. The cats in this genus had stout bodies that were nearly six feet long, and they preyed mostly on wild pigs.

The Smilodon

The smilodon was the last of the Machairodonts, existing up to 13,000 years ago, and is most famous saber-toothed cat. The name ‘smilodon’ comes from the Greek words for ‘carving knife’ and ‘tooth’, referring to its long, sharp canines.

An artist’s impression of a smilodon by Sergiodlarosa

Three species of smilodon existed. The smilodon gracilis was the smallest and lived in North America. The smilodon populator was the largest and lived in Central and South America. Finally, the smilodon fatalis, the last to go extinct, was medium-sized and lived both in North and South America.

The smilodon fatalis could grow up to 175 cm (sixty-nine inches) long and up to 100 cm (thirty-nine inches) tall at the shoulder. It weighed up to 280 kg (620 pounds), nearly a hundred pounds heavier than today’s lion.

Smilodons had canines which could grow up to seven inches long. Like their ancestors, these teeth were flattened, not rounded, and were jagged on both edges – imagine a saw that has teeth on both sides!

Smilodons could open their jaws very wide, as much as 130 degrees. In comparison, today’s big cats can only open up to 65 degrees. This was necessary for smilodons to get their food past their long teeth.

Smilodon head by Wallace63

In spite of how scary their teeth looked, smilodons’ canines were prone to breaking and bending. Because of this, the force of their bite was not very strong, only one third that of today’s lion.

This relatively weak bite force meant that smilodons had to pin their prey to the ground first, and then deliver a stabbing bite to the throat, causing the animal to quickly bleed to death. In contrast, today’s big cats kill their prey by delivering a strong, suffocating bite.

Also, because of their weak canines, smilodons did not eat bones. They ate only meat, in particular, the meat of bison, giant ground sloths and young mammoths. The bone carcasses they left behind were likely eaten by the bone-crushing hyenas, which lived about the same time.

Smilodons went extinct at about the same time as mammoths, giant apes, and giant kangaroos. Many reasons have been proposed for the extinction of the smilodons, including climate change, competition with humans, and the lack of food resources.

Smilodon fossils have been found in North, Central, and South America, though the largest deposits have been found in Peru and the La Brea Tar Pits in California. The La Brea Tar Pits yielded 12,000 specimens of Smilodon fatalis.

Skeleton of Smilodon by Momotarou2012


Modern big cats have special cone-shaped bristles on the surface of their tongues. These do not aid in tasting, but rather help the cat groom and break down meat.

Cats have no molars – the flat teeth that we use to chew our food. Rather, their teeth are specially made for cutting meat into small pieces that can be swallowed.

The Long Awaited Yawn by Karen Roe

Cats can only move their jaws up and down, not back and forth. This makes it even harder for them to chew, but easier for them to hold down struggling prey.

All cats have protractible claws. This means that they can move their claws in and out of a protective casing. Cats usually retract their claws or hide them when they are resting, and protract them or bring them out when they are threatened or while hunting.

Claw paw by James

Cats have very good eyesight, even at night. They have special cells in their eyes that can distinguish moving objects in dim light, which is why many cats are active at night. It is these cells that glow at night.

Cats also have sensitive hearing, even more sensitive than wolves and dogs. They are especially good at picking up high-frequency sounds produced by smaller prey like rodents.

There is a reason why cats don’t like sweets. With the exception of leopards and the Pallas’ cat, most cats cannot taste sweetness.

Cats can ‘taste’ the air using a special organ located in the roof of their mouths. It does this by curling back its upper lip to expose its front teeth, and then taking a deep breath through its mouth. This is called flehming.

The organ the cat uses to ‘taste’ the air is called the Jacobson’s organ. Many people know it exists in snakes and lizards, as they constantly stick their tongues out to gather tastes from the air. However, it also works well in many other animals including: lemurs, lorises, elephants, cattle, mice, rats, pigs, goats, dogs, and cats. The painted turtle even uses it to smell underwater.

Cats can also sense movement in the air using their very sensitive whiskers, which are rooted deep under their skin. This is especially helpful when hunting at night.

Black and white whiskers of sleeping Dutch cat by Hjvannes


Cats are fairly vocal animals, making sounds to issue threats or express concern and affection for each other. Smaller cats make higher-pitched sounds, while larger ones make deeper sounds.

All cats have five basic sounds. These are the: mew, hiss, growl, snarl, and spit. All except the mew are used to threaten other animals.

Having a hissy fit by Nick Jewell

Mewing sounds are mostly exchanged by mothers and their kittens as they lay beside each other. They can also be used over long distances, especially when calling for a mate.

Most cats can also purr, which is a buzzing sound produced by variations in the larynx. Purrs are most commonly produced by mothers as they care for their kittens.

Small cats have two unique sounds – the gurgle and the wah-wah. Big cats also have two unique sounds of their own – the prusten and the roar. The prusten is a friendly, snorting sound exchanged during friendly encounters.

Cats also communicate with their tails. If their tails are raised, this usually means they are content, and if their tails are held low, they are uncomfortable.

Meow! by Steve Jurvetson

When a cat swings its tail from side to side lazily, this means that it is relaxed while observing its surroundings. If the tail is twitching quickly, though, the cat may be irritated and is preparing to bite or scratch.

Cats also communicate by scent. In particular, they spray their urine on their territory as a warning to other cats to keep away.

Diet and Hunting

Cats are called obligate carnivores, or true carnivores. This means that they need to eat animal flesh in order to survive.

Villy eating by Cloudtail

Cats are some of the most skilled hunters in the wild. They can stalk their prey without making a sound and then pounce from their hiding place at just the right opportunity, in order to deliver a fatal bite, holding down their prey until it dies from strangulation.

Because kills are not made every day, many big cats store their food. They store them behind bushes and rocks and come back for them when they are hungry. The food doesn’t always stay there, though, since other animals like hyenas often come to take them.


A male cat can mate with multiple females. Females can also mate with multiple males, which is why a litter can have different fathers.

Some cats have one or more litters a year. Others have a litter every other year, or even every two to three years. Baby cats are called kittens or cubs.

Cubs are born with fur, but are otherwise blind and helpless, relying on their mothers for survival. In most cat species, it is the mother who solely cares for the young, protecting them, nursing them, and then teaching them how to hunt for themselves until they are about two years old.

Of all the cats in the wild, there are four that have a fearsome reputation as the ‘big cats’, distinguished by their size and ability to roar. These are the tiger, lion, jaguar, and leopard.


The tiger is the largest of all living cats. It can grow up to eleven feet long and weigh up to 306 kg (675 pounds).

The name ‘tiger’ comes from the Greek word ‘tigris’, which means ‘arrow’, referring to the tiger’s speed. Some species of tigers can run at bursts of up to forty miles per hour, although they prefer to ambush their prey instead of chasing it.

Tiger by Rene Schwietzke

Tigers are also excellent swimmers. They can cross lakes that are up to four miles across and swim up to a distance of eighteen miles a day. Sometimes, they even hunt in the water, ambushing water buffaloes, which they drag out of the water to eat. It would take thirteen people to haul a water buffalo out of water but one tiger can do it just fine!

Tigers are best known for the black stripes on their reddish-orange fur, which helps them hide themselves in the grass. Like zebras, each tiger has a unique stripe pattern.

Male and female tigers are hard to distinguish at first glance. However, male tigers have larger bodies, longer whiskers, and wider front paws. Female tigers are called tigresses.

White tigers exist, but are very rare. White tigers have bright blue eyes and are popular in zoos. Sadly, they are prone to having physical defects, such as curved spines and crossed eyes.

White Tiger by Michael Gwyther-Jones

A tiger’s pawprint is called a pugmark.

Tigers are solitary animals and very territorial. Male tigers have larger territories than females. However, a female is less tolerant of other females in her territory than a male is of other males in his.

Tigers normally hunt deer, buffalo, and wild boar. However, they have also been seen preying on leopards, wolves, bears, pythons, and crocodiles. Even young elephants and rhinos are taken.

In spite of a tiger’s strength, only one in twenty hunts ends up in a kill. An adult tiger can survive for up to two weeks without eating, but when it does feed, a tiger can eat up to seventy-five pounds of meat in one sitting.

A tigress can have up to six cubs, but normally has two to three. Interestingly, in her lifetime, a tigress gives birth to an equal number of male and female cubs.

Tiger Cubs by John Tuggle

There are six tiger subspecies living in the world today. There used to be nine, but three became extinct in the twentieth century. The remaining six subspecies are all endangered.

The Bengal tiger is the most common tiger subspecies. It can be found in parts of Asia, particularly in India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Bhutan, where it is considered the king of the jungle.

The Siberian tiger, or Amur tiger, is the largest of the tiger subspecies. Its coat is lighter but thicker in winter, and thinner and darker in the summer. It is considered one of the guardians of the Tungusic peoples in Siberia.

The Sumatran tiger has the most stripes of all the tiger subspecies. It is also the smallest, with males growing only a little over seven feet at most. Less than 700 of it are believed to remain in the wild.

The South China tiger is known for the unique marking on its forehead that resembles the Chinese character for ‘king’. Sadly, it is one of the rarest animals in the world, possibly extinct in the wild and with less than a hundred kept in zoos.

South Chinese Tiger in Shanghai Zoo by J. Patrick Fischer


The lion is the second-largest cat in the wild, but is often considered the most fearsome of all the big cats. This is because its roar is the loudest of any cat–it can be heard up to five miles away.

The male lion is widely considered as the king of the jungle or the king of all beasts, its mane giving it a regal appearance. This mane also makes it very easy to tell male lions from female lions, called lionesses.

A lion’s mane does not only make it appear longer. It is also an indication of the lion’s age and health. The darker and fuller a lion’s mane is, the older it is, the longer it is likely to live, and the more healthy offspring it is likely to have, which is why lionesses choose lions with dark, dense manes.

A lion’s coat varies from yellowish to dark brown. Lion cubs are born with dark spots like those of a leopard, which fade as they get older.

Lions are the only cats with a tasseled tail. In some lions, the tuft hides a bony spur. The function of this part of the tail is unknown, although some scientists believe it plays a role in communication. Cubs are born without it, but develop it around five months of age.

Lions are the most social of all the cats in the wild. Most subspecies, with the exception of the Barbary lion, live in groups called prides, which consist of one or two males, five or six females, and their cubs. If there are two males, only one, the older leader of the group, is allowed to mate.

Some male lions are nomads. Like lone wolves, they travel alone, with some never joining another pride.

Lion lying down in Namibia by Kevin Pluck

Lions spend as many as twenty hours a day resting. They are most active at dusk and do their hunting at various intervals throughout the night.

Lionesses do most of the hunting, with each having a specific role in the hunt – to launch the attack or to make sure the prey does not escape, for example. While the lionesses hunt, the male lion defends the cubs, as well as the pride’s territory.

Lions normally go after wildebeest, zebras, buffalos, warthogs, and gazelles. They can also take young rhinos, elephants, and giraffes, and have been known to attack livestock.

Female lion versus buffalo at Serengeti National Park by Demetrius John Kessy

An adult lioness needs about five kilograms of meat each day and an adult lion seven, though it can eat up to thirty kilograms in just one sitting. The lion eats first, then allows the rest of the pride to eat. If the lion makes a kill by itself, as it does occasionally, it will not share with the rest of the pride.

A lioness has a typical litter of four cubs, which she gives birth to after a gestation period of nearly three months. She leaves the pride to give birth, and only when the cubs are eight weeks old does she return to the pride with them. Lionesses in a pride often give birth at the same time, and so help each other nurse and care for the cubs.

Lion Cub with Mother by William Warby

Lion cubs are very playful, playing among themselves and even with adults. Some male lions allow their cubs to play with their manes or tails, while others are not so patient and will leave the group or snarl at the cubs during playtime.

Apart from producing sounds and facial expressions, lions communicate by licking each other’s head and neck, and by rubbing heads and bodies against each other. In doing so, they leave their scents on each other.

The Asiatic lion is the only lion subspecies found in Asia. It has a well-known population in the Gir Forest in India. It has a less developed mane, but a larger tail tuft than African lions.

Asiatic lion(ess), Karnataka, India by Paul Mannix


The jaguar can be found in the Americas, particularly in North and Central America. It is the third largest of the big cats, weighing up to 160 kg (350 pounds).

Standing jaguar by USFWS

The jaguar is often confused with the leopard. However, the jaguar has a stockier body, larger rosettes – rose-like markings – with spots in the middle, and wider foreheads and jaws.

The jaguar has the strongest bite force of all the members of the cat family at an estimated 2,000 psi (pounds per square inch). This is two times stronger than that of the lion, and the strongest of all mammals.

The jaguar’s bite force is probably an adaptation to its unique hunting technique. Unlike other big cats, the jaguar kills by crushing the skull of its prey, piercing its brain with its teeth. Jaguars regularly take anacondas, caimans, capybaras, and wild pigs, as well as monkeys and turtles.

A Jaguar takes a yawn at the Toronto Zoo by MarcusObal

Jaguars are known to eat the roots of the caapi, a vine found in the jungles of South America. It is used as medicine by the indigenous peoples who live there and can heighten a jaguar’s senses, making it an even more skillful hunter.

The jaguar was a symbol of power and strength in the Andean cultures, particularly in the Chavin, Moche, Olmec, and Mayan cultures. The Aztecs considered the jaguar a powerful warrior, and their most skilled warriors were called Jaguar Knights.


The leopard is a widely distributed big cat, found in parts of Asia and Africa. It is the smallest of the big cats, but still large with a body length of over five feet (that’s the average height of a twelve year old boy).

African Leopard in Serengeti, Tanzania by JanErkamp

The coat pattern of a leopard varies, depending on where it lives. Leopards in east Africa have rounder rosettes. Those in southern Africa have squarer rosettes, and those who live in Asia have larger rosettes. Leopards that live in warm areas also have paler coats, while those who live in cold areas have grayish coats.

Leopards are well known for being the best climbers of all the big cats. They rest in tree branches and have even been seen dragging young giraffes up to twice their weight into the branches.

Just climbing around by Nick Jewell

Leopards are nocturnal, hunting at night and sleeping during the day. They eat prey as small as dung beetles, and show their fearsome nature in that they will tackle animals as large as Nile crocodiles and gorillas.

Currently, nine leopard subspecies exist. Of these, the Javan leopard, the Arabian leopard, and the Amur leopard are the most critically endangered, with less than 250 of each remaining both in the wild and in captivity.

Amur Leopard by Ricky Wright

Snow leopards

Snow leopards are sometimes considered a leopard subspecies, and other times a separate species on its own. They have very thick, smoky gray fur, which keep them warm in the harsh winters, and very thick, long tails – the longest of any cat, growing up to thirty-nine inches long.

A snow leopard by Bernard Landgraf

Snow leopards use their tails for balance as they perch on rocks when hunting. When it is very cold, they also wrap their tails around their faces for extra warmth.


The cougar, also known as the puma or mountain lion, is the second largest cat in the Americas after the jaguar. In spite of its size, though, it is more closely related to smaller cats, including the domestic cat.

The cougar is larger than the leopard, with the largest one weighing 136 kg (300 pounds). However, it is not considered a ‘big cat’ because it does not have the specialized larynx needed for roaring. Instead of roaring, it screams to warn other animals to stay off its territory, which is why it is also known as the mountain screamer.

A cougar at Cougar Mountain Zoo by Dcoetzee

Cougars have the largest hind legs of all cats. This allows them to make powerful jumps – as high as eighteen feet in one bound, and as far as forty-five feet. They are also good at climbing, and can run at speeds of up to fifty miles per hour.


The cheetah is the fastest cat, and the fastest land animal in the world. It can run at speeds of up to seventy-five miles per hour over a distance of about one mile, reaching an initial speed of sixty-two miles per hour in just three seconds from a resting position.

Cheetah Run by Mark Dumont

Cheetahs are very well-adapted to running. They have large nostrils that allow them to breathe more air, and large hearts and lungs that circulate the oxygen more effectively.

In spite of their incredible speed, cheetahs do not always chase after their prey. Like other cats, they prefer to ambush, only chasing their prey if necessary, and only for a minute.

They hunt during the day to avoid competition with other big cats. The teardrop markings below their eyes allow them to see clearly, even under the harsh African sunlight.

Cheetah hunting a gazelle by Demetrius John Kessy

The cheetah is one of only four cats to have claws that are not fully retractable – an adaptation for running. Indeed, its claws are always visible, allowing it to have a better grip on the ground.

Cheetahs were kept as pets by the ancient Egyptians, who used them for hunting. They would be carried on carts or on horseback to the hunting grounds, blindfolded and leashed. They were released only when game was spotted.


The margay, which is found in Central and South America, is considered one of the best tree climbers among cats. It can rotate its ankles up to 180 degrees, which allows it to climb down trees head first, and it can also cross branches with its back to the ground or hang from them with just one foot.

Margay cat by Malene

Margays eat a variety of animals that live in trees like squirrels, opossums, tree frogs, birds, and sloths. Its favorite prey is monkey, such as the pied tamarin. Interestingly, the margay can mimic the distress call of an infant pied tamarin to lure the adults.


The ocelot is also known as the dwarf leopard because its coat pattern is similar to the leopard’s, though it is much smaller. A female ocelot is called a queen, and a male ocelot is called a torn.

Ocelot by Tom Smylie

The ocelot was once widely hunted for its silky, beautiful fur, and for many years was considered an endangered species. Laws have been put in place to prevent it from being hunted, and it is currently out of immediate danger of extinction.

Clouded leopard

The clouded leopard, in spite of its name, is not a leopard. It was once classified as a ‘big cat’ because of its roar, but upon analysis, its roar was determined to be more of a loud moan, not like the roar that the ‘big cats’ can produce. It is believed to be the link between the ‘big cats’ and the smaller cats.

Clouded Leopard by kellinahandbasket

Clouded leopards are also called tree tigers because of their ability to climb trees. They can hang from tree branches with just their tails.

Eurasian lynx

The Eurasian lynx, or common lynx, is the largest of all the lynxes and the third largest predator in its range. Its coat is reddish brown with spots or stripes during the summer, and silvery grey and thicker during winter. The further north the Eurasian lynx lives, the darker its coat.

Vigilant lynx, Schönbrunn Zoo, Vienna by mpiet


The caracal, or Egyptian lynx, is known for having long, black tufts on its ear, which help keep flies away from its face, and also aid in hearing and communication. It is very good at hunting birds, launching itself up to ten feet in the air to catch them.

Caracal by €Van 3000

Caracals are well adapted to life in the desert. They have wide paws covered with stiff hairs that prevent them from sinking into the sand, and can go without water for a long period of time.

Video Page

If the gadget you are reading on allows it, you can discover more about big cats by watching video footage on the IP Factly website at:


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Photo Credits

Photo01 Big Cats (13) by Graham Dean cc2.0


Photo02 An artist’s impression of a saber-toothed cat by John Cummings cc3.0


Photo03 An artist’s impression of a smilodon by Sergiodlarosa cc3.0


Photo04 Smilodon head by Wallace63 cc3.0


Photo05 Skeleton of Smilodon by Momotarou2012 cc3.0


Photo06 The Long Awaited Yawn by Karen Roe cc2.0


Photo07 Claw paw by James cc2.0


Photo08 Black and white whiskers of sleeping Dutch cat by Hjvannes cc2.5


Photo09 Having a hissy fit by Nick Jewell cc2.0


Photo10 Meow! by Steve Jurvetson cc2.0


Photo11 Villy eating by Cloudtail cc2.0


Photo12 Cats, Kitten by Laitche


Photo13 Tiger by Rene Schwietzke cc2.0


Photo14 White Tiger by Michael Gwyther-Jones cc2.0


Photo15 Tiger Cubs by John Tuggle cc2.0


Photo16 South Chinese Tiger in Shanghai Zoo by J. Patrick Fischer cc3.0


Photo17 Lion lying down in Namibia by Kevin Pluck cc2.0


Photo18 scratch my belly by Patty Vicknair cc2.0


Photo19 Female lion versus buffalo at Serengeti National Park by Demetrius John Kessy cc2.0


Photo20 Lion Cub with Mother by William Warby cc2.0


Photo21 Asiatic lion(ess), Karnataka, India by Paul Mannix cc2.0


Photo22 Standing jaguar by USFWS


Photo23 A Jaguar takes a yawn at the Toronto Zoo by MarcusObal cc3.0


Photo24 African Leopard in Serengeti, Tanzania by JanErkamp cc3.0


Photo25 Just climbing around by Nick Jewell cc2.0


Photo26 Amur Leopard by Ricky Wright cc2.0


Photo27 A snow leopard by Bernard Landgraf cc3.0


Photo28 A cougar at Cougar Mountain Zoo by Dcoetzee


Photo29 Cheetah Run by Mark Dumont cc2.0


Photo30 Cheetah hunting a gazelle by Demetrius John Kessy cc2.0


Photo31 Margay cat by Malene cc3.0


Photo32 Ocelot by Tom Smylie


Photo33 Clouded Leopard by kellinahandbasket cc2.0


Photo34 Vigilant lynx, Schönbrunn Zoo, Vienna by mpiet cc2.0


Photo35 Caracal or desert lynx by € Van 3000 cc2.0



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