big cats the cat family wild cats

What’s A Big Cat?

What species do you think of when somebody says "big cats"?

What species do you think of when somebody says “big cats”?

  • Lions (no-brainer): Weight can be over 400 pounds.
  • Tigers (same): Weight up to 600 pounds or more.
  • Leopards (of course): Can weigh up to almost 200 pounds.
  • Cheetahs (sure): Weight can reach 140 pounds or more.
  • Jaguar (oh, that’s not a leopard?): These cats live in the New World and, unlike leopards, often have dark dots in the middle of their rosettes. Size is variable (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002, 2014), but jaguars can weigh over 200 pounds.
  • Um…those Himalayan leopards I saw on a BBC special? Cougars?

Once upon a time, big cats meant the roaring cats – felines with a certain structure in their hyoid neck bone that supposedly let them roar. (Kitchener and others)

Cheetahs and cougars purr, so they weren’t big cats.

Since that bony structure is typical of the genus Panthera, for a while “big cats” meant the pantherine cats – lions, tigers, leopards, and jaguars; on genetic grounds, the snow leopard was eventually included in this group.

Nowadays, roaring and purring are better understood (see “Making Sounds” in Kitchener and others) and “big cats” is a more informal term.

Some experts still use it for just the pantherine cats, plus clouded leopards (Davis and others), but it can also mean any feline that’s, well, big (roughly cougar sized or larger).

Featured image: Amur tiger by pixel-mixer at Public domain.

Davis, B. W.; Li, G.; and Murphy, W. J. 2010. Supermatrix and species tree methods resolve phylogenetic relationships within the big cats, “Panthera,” (Carnivora: Felidae). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. doi:10.1016/j.ympev.2010.01.036.

Kitchener, A. C., Van Valkenburgh, B., and Yamaguchi, N.  2010.  Felid form and function, in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, ed. D. W. Macdonald and A. J. Loveridge, 83-106.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Sunquist, M. and Sunquist, F. 2002. Wild Cats of the World. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Sunquist, F. and Sunquist, M. 2014. The Wild Cat Book. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.


About BJ Deming

After getting an associate's degree in forestry, I studied geology as an undergraduate back in the 1980s but went into medical transcription instead. It just worked out better for me. The Internet renewed my interest in geoscience as a hobby, and when I retired in 2014, I decided to write a book about cat evolution. That started a new career for me (enormous fun but not self-supporting yet). Right now, besides blogging I am finishing up the first two books in a self-published ebook series about the cat family and its history. Thanks for your interest!

2 comments on “What’s A Big Cat?

  1. Pingback: What to do When You Meet A Mountain Lion – 50 Facts About Cats

  2. Pingback: Dangerous Cats – 50 Facts About Cats

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