A full grown tiger requires an average of 15 pounds of meat a day to survive. Click on the icons below to learn where big cats live, what they eat, how they hunt and how they reproduce. You can even pet a big cat in Zoobooks Virtual Zoo!
The major difference between big cats and small cats is that a big cat can roar but cannot purr. This describes leopards, lions, tigers, and jaguars. Snow leopards and cheetahs cannot roar, but are still considered big cats because they share so many other big cat characteristics. People have loved and feared big cats throughout history. Ancient tribes worshipped them. Nations have placed pictures of them on flags, and kings and emperors have worn their skins as part of their royal regalia. To this day, many people would agree that big cats stand for courage and majesty.
Big cats have long, sharp canine teeth used for bringing down prey—some canines can be four inches long. Different cats have different hunting styles—cheetahs are fast and run down their prey; tigers creep up silently and then unexpectedly leap, sometimes from a distance of 10 yards; and lions hunt cooperatively, in groups. To do this, some lions will usually hide, while other lions circle around and stampede the prey in the hidden lions’ direction. While this is the most effective way to hunt, it is successful less than 40% of the time.
All cats are carnivores, and big cats will eat anything from insects to large herd animals. A full grown tiger requires an average of 15 pounds of meat a day to survive. A tiger can eat much more than that in one sitting, however, and will sometimes go a week or more—if it has to—without eating at all. Group hunters like lions allow the big males to eat their fill first, followed by the females and cubs. If the kill is small, cubs may miss out.
Most big cats live alone, with the exception of mothers and cubs. Fathers do not generally participate in rearing cubs. Even so, male tigers have been occasionally observed allowing females and cubs first dibs on his kill. Lion cubs are born with spots that fade as they get older. It is thought these spots may help to hide them in tall grass. There are generally four cubs or less to a litter. At an early age, lion cubs practice to become hunters by stalking beetles, butterflies, sticks, stones, and each other.
Big cats have a broad range. They are found north of the Arctic Circle, in steaming tropical jungles, and on open plains. Every continent but Europe, Australia, and Antarctica has its big cats. Jaguars are found in Mexico down through Central and South America; leopards are distributed widely throughout Africa and Asia; lions are in Africa and in India’s Gir Forest, and tigers are found in Asia.
Tigers are among the most endangered species on earth. Bengal tigers, with a population of about 4,000 individuals, are the most plentiful. Other remaining tiger species number as little as 400 (Sumatran)—or 150 (Siberian)—or 30 (South Chinese). Several tiger species have already gone extinct during the last few decades. Much of this is due to habitat reduction, but must also be blamed on the Asian demand for tiger body parts to supply the medicinal trade. All species of lions and leopards are endangered as well.