Out of the 38 cat species on the planet, only five species make up this charismatic and recognisable group of animals. Unlike other cats, big cats have the ability to roar!
The big cats are members of the genus Panthera and are found in a variety of habitats around the globe, from the freezing temperatures of Siberia to the tropics of the mangroves of India!
Sadly, worldwide all the big cat species are in serious decline. Find out more about them here.
- Amongst the big cats, the lion is the only social animal. While other big cat species have a mostly solitary life in the wild, lions almost always live in groups, called prides, of up to 30 adults and their offspring.
- The lion (Panthera leo) is described as the king of the jungle, though the tiger is in fact the largest feline predator. Young lions tussle and chase each other in order to learn the skills vital for their survival. At the same time, their play reinforces their position in the family hierarchy. Young males leave the pride as soon as they have reached adult age, and found their own pride, while the females remain with the family.
- In a lion pride, lionesses do most of the work. The females conduct the larger part of the hunt. They take on various tasks according to their skills. Some hunt and steer the prey, others will lay an ambush. After the prey has been killed, the male lion makes sure that he gets his share. His role is to defend the pride's territory. Male lions who are unable to get a meal often steal prey from other animals.
- Although commonly assumed, panthers are not a separate species. The term panther is often used for leopards and jaguars, especially for the melanistic individuals of these species: the black panther.
- Big cats are found from desert through forest to mountain areas, from cold temperate zones to the tropics. They can also be found at all altitudes, ranging from sea level to 6000 meters high. As predators, their distribution is mainly determined by the amount of available prey. Human encroachment has become a huge determining factor too.
- All the big cat species are declining worldwide. The main threats to big cat populations are habitat loss, human–wildlife conflict, (illegal) wildlife trade and hunting.
- The tiger is the most endangered big cat with estimated numbers of between 2,154 and 3,900 individuals. Most of the remaining wild tigers are found in India. In addition to habitat loss, tigers are under threat due to poaching for Traditional Medicines.
- White lions and white tigers do not belong to separate (sub)species. Instead, their white coat is caused by a rare and recessive mutation. Captive white tigers are often cross-eyed, which is a sign of inbreeding, a practice used to breed animals with this rare colour, despite the negative effects for their health.
- The solitary big cats are highly dependent on olfactory communication, which includes scent marking through urine, faeces, and a variety of scent glands. Scent marks provide information about the individual and are often combined with visual marks, like scratches on trees.
- The big cat coat pattern varies between species and provides camouflage. Adult lions do not have a pattern on their coats, leopards and snow leopards have spots and jaguars have secondary patterns known as rosettes. Tiger stripe markings are individually unique - like a fingerprint!
- While all the other big cat species are found in Eurasia, jaguars are the only ones that are found in the Americas. There is another large species of wild cats that are found there, but it does not belong to the Panthera genus: the puma, also known as mountain lion or cougar.
- The term ‘big cats’ is used in varying ways. FOUR PAWS uses the scientific grouping which includes only the five species belonging to the Panthera genus (lion, tiger, leopard, jaguar, snow leopard). Other common groupings often also include species such as the puma and cheetah.
And finally, a bonus fact about lions, the king of the jungle: