Of all the species on this Earth, big cats are perhaps the most important for the ecosystems in which they live, regulating prey populations and structuring animal communities. Let’s take a look at 7 Largest Big Cats in the World and find out what makes them special.
Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)
We start our list with a cat that is not only one of the largest big cats in the world but IS the fastest of all land animals on the planet. With a sprinting speed of up to 70 mph and 0-60 in only 3 seconds, the Cheetah could certainly take your Prius in a drag race.
This large African kitty’s claws don’t retract when they run, like your house cat. Instead, they act like cleats to help the cheetah reach its top speeds. Also, when running, cheetahs use their tail to steer, like a rudder for a boat.
A cheetah’s spots cover nearly its entire body and may serve as camouflage by offsetting shadows in the gray-hued grasses they inhabit. Camouflage is not only essential for stalking prey but also for protecting cheetah cubs from predators.
On its face, there are black tear lines on either side of a cheetah’s nose that functions like a football player’s black face paint, keeping the bright sun out of the big cat’s eyes while they hunt.
A full-grown adult male Cheetah weighs up to 150 pounds.
Leopard (Panthera pardus)
With a wide range of Sub-Saharan Africa, northeast Africa, Central Asia, India, and China, this spotted cat is also quick on its feet with a top speed up to around 36 miles per hour. Not quite Cheetah fast, but faster than your dog, unless you have a Greyhound.
One thing your dog can’t do though is leap 20 feet forward like the super springy Leopard. Not bad for a cat that can grow to 165 pounds.
Leopards are skilled climbers and like to rest in the branches of trees during the day. They are strong beasts, too, and can carry their heavy prey up into the trees so that pesky scavengers, such as hyenas, don’t steal their meal!
Nocturnal animals, leopards are active at night when they venture out in search of food. They mostly spend their days resting, camouflaged in the trees, or hiding in caves.
When a leopard spots a potential meal, it approaches with legs bent and head low, so as not to be seen. It then stalks its prey carefully and quietly, until it’s 15 to 30 feet within range. Then…. pounce! The leopard dashes forward and takes down its victim with a bite to the throat or neck. Small prey, such as small birds or mice, will receive a fatal blow from the feline’s paw. Swat!
Fun fact: When wild “dog” species like Wolves and Hyenas compete for resources with big cats, the kitties win. A groundbreaking study of 2,000 ancient fossils reveals that felids – the cat family – have historically been much better at surviving than the “canid” dog clan, and often at the latter’s expense.
The research finds that cats have played a significant role in making 40 dog species extinct, outcompeting them for scarce food supplies because they are generally more effective hunters.
The verdict is still out on who is the better house pet. What do you think?
Snow Leopard (Panthera uncia)
Despite being called the snow ‘leopard’, this big cat is more closely related to the tiger than the leopard. And they are smaller than both, but still big, at up to 121 pounds.
However, like the Leopard, the Snow Leopard is a long jump champion with a springing leap of up to 27 feet or over 6 times their body length.
The snow leopard inhabits the mountains of central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, ranging from an elevation of about 6,000 feet in the winter to about 18,000 feet in the summer. And they are perfectly adapted to their cold baron homes from their camouflage to their insulating undercoats to their large fluffy feet that act as snowshoes.
However, specialization has not served the Snow Leopard well against human encroachment and is now considered endangered with only a few thousand of these big cats remaining.
Cougar (Aka Puma and Mountain Lion (Puma concolor)
The cougar, also commonly referred to as a puma, mountain lion, or panther, is the second-largest big cat in North America.
Cougars have a similar body to your fluffy house cat, just on a larger scale. They practically look like a BIG version of your little house panther, with slender bodies and round heads with pointed ears. Luckily, your house cat doesn’t weigh up to 150 pounds. Can you imagine scooping that litter box? Or having it kneading on your chest to wake you up to feed it in the morning?
Inhabiting diverse ecosystems from mountains to deserts to sea-level, the cougar’s established range includes western North America, a small region in Florida (a subspecies known as the Florida Panther), and most of South America. They make their home anywhere that there are shelter and prey.
Skilled and cunning hunters, they mostly prey on deer and small animals. Cougars stay hidden from their prey until they can pounce with claws out-stretched. Cougars can also climb with ease and leap over 20 ft. After killing a large animal, a cougar hides the carcass and eats in the coming days.
Jaguar (Panthera onca)
The word ‘jaguar’ comes from the indigenous word ‘yaguar’, which means ‘he who kills with one leap’.
The jaguar is the third biggest cat in the world and is the largest cat in the Americas with males weighing up to 265 pounds. They’re big, even their impressive tail that grows up to about 3 feet in length.
Unlike your domestic cat, jaguars don’t avoid water. In fact, They often live near lakes, rivers, and wetlands, and are confident swimmers, known to cross large rivers.
To the untrained eye, jaguars can be mistaken for leopards, but you can tell the difference from their rosettes (circular markings).
Jaguars have black dots in the middle of some of their rosettes, whereas leopards don’t. Jaguars also have larger, rounded heads and short legs.
Jaguars can be “melanistic”, where they appear almost black. Melanistic jaguars (and leopards) are known as “black panthers”.
Jaguars have the most powerful bite of any big cat. Their teeth are strong enough to bite through the thick hides of Alligators and the hard shells of turtles. They need powerful teeth and jaws to take down prey three to four times their own weight – usually killing it with a bite to the back of the skull rather than biting the neck or throat like other big cats.
Lion (Panthera leo) – King of the Big Cats
They may only be the second largest, but ff all the big cat species in the world, lions are the most social. They live together in large groups known as “prides”. The size of a pride can range in size from 15 to 40 members.
Male lions can grow up to 10 feet in length and weigh up to 550 pounds, while female lions can grow to a length of 9 feet and weigh up to 395 pounds. That’s a big kitty.
Known colloquially as the “king of the jungle”, lions do not actually live in jungles. Instead, their primary habitats consist of Africa’s grasslands and plains where they hunt birds, hares, turtles, mice, lizards, wild hogs, wild dogs, antelopes, cheetahs, buffaloes, leopards, crocodiles, baby elephants, rhinoceros, hippopotamuses, and even tall giraffes. If it moves, a lion will eat it.
Male lions may get all of the attention with their majestic manes, but the females do the majority of the work when it comes to hunting. Typical, right ladies?
Anywhere from 85-90% of the hunting is done by the females in a given pride. The males, meanwhile, protect both the pride and the pride’s territory (which can extend up to 100 square miles) from rival prides and other predators. Even though females do the vast majority of the hunting, male lions usually get to eat first!
Tiger (Panthera tigris) – the Largest of the Big Cats
Tigers are the largest cat species in the world and the third-largest carnivore on land–only polar and brown bears are larger, oh my.
An adult Amur or Siberian tiger (the largest subspecies) can weigh up to 660 pounds, although the Sumatran tiger sub-species may only get up to 300 pounds.
Tigers are the only cat species that are completely striped. They even have stripes on their skin. No two tigers have the same stripes. Like human fingerprints, their stripe patterns are unique to each individual. Stripes range in color from light brown to black and are not symmetrical on both sides of the tiger.
An adult tiger can consume up to 88 pounds of meat in one meal and will often stay with its kill and dine over a period of days. It may not kill again for four or five days.
Unlike most of the largest big cats in the world, tigers are powerful swimmers and have been known to swim great distances to hunt or cross rivers. Young tigers often play in water and adults will lounge in streams or lakes to stay cool during the heat of the day.
Fun fact: White tigers are not a separate subspecies nor are they albino. They are leucistic, the result of a recessive gene from each parent that affects pigmentation. White tigers typically have blue eyes.
Tigers and other largest big cats are keystone species. They’re integral to the health of the ecosystems in which they live. As apex predators, they keep prey species under control.
This protects the vegetation which in turn maintains the integrity of streams, forests, and croplands that provide people around the world with clean air, water, food, and jobs.
When we protect our largest big cats in the world, we protect ourselves.
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