What’s A Big Cat?

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 Pixabay.com. 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.


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