Big Cats: Way of Life & Behaviour
What characterizes these large carnivores and how do they spend their lives in the wild?
Big cats are carnivores that can be found in Africa (lion, leopard), Asia (lion, tiger, leopard, snow leopard) and the Americas (jaguar). In the wild, they can live to an age of around 12 years, up to a maximum 19 years for females of some of the species. Unfortunately, their numbers and home ranges have significantly declined over the years worldwide. Most big cat species are solitary, with the exception of the lion. Find our more about what traits and behaviours big cats have in common, and how they are different.
Distribution and numbers
One common feature of all big cat species is that they can no longer be found in their full historic range. The tiger has seen the most dramatic decline: the species is found in Asia in less than 6% of their historic range. The tiger is the most endangered big cat, with estimated numbers of 2,154 and 3,159 mature individuals (IUCN), while there are also estimates of around 3,900 individuals.
For leopards and jaguars it is unknown how many individuals exist in the wild, although it is believed that their populations are declining. Leopards inhabit only 25% of their global historic range in Africa and Asia and the jaguar is believed to have gone extinct in 49% of its former range in the Americas. It is extremely difficult to estimate numbers of snow leopards, due to the landscape where this species occurs in Asia. However, according to IUCN there are between 2,710 and 3,386 mature individuals.
With an estimated number of mature individuals in the wild in Africa and Asia of between 23,000 and 39,000 (IUCN), the lion may seem to be doing well compared to the other big cats. However, their global numbers have decreased by 43% between 1993 and 2014. It is believed that they are currently found in less than 16% of their historic range.
Exceptional in a Number of Ways
Lions are the only true social big cats in the wild. Females typically stay within one pride, although the entire pride is rarely together all at once. How tight the pride sticks together depends on prey availability.
Tigers are known to be the biggest big cats in the wild, but size can vary from 140 kg up to 261 kg. The largest tiger subspecies is the Amur tiger, also known as the Siberian tiger, which is found in the Russian Far East and north-eastern China.
Leopards are known to adapt well, and can persist in many different habitats. They can survive under high human densities, and they can cope with extremely cold temperatures (-30 °C in Russian boreal forests) as well as extremely hot temperatures (70 °C in deserts).
Jaguars are the only big cats to be found in the Americas. Proportionally, they have the strongest bite of all big cats.
Snow leopards are the most elusive of the big cats. Their distribution and their habitat use makes them extremely difficult to study and very little is known about this species.
Hunting and social life
Lions live and hunt in prides, which typically consists of 1-20 related females, their offspring and 1-9 often related males. Lions are opportunistic hunters, killing anything they encounter, but they have a preference for larger herbivores. They mainly hunt during the twilight or during the night and females do most of the hunting.
Unlike lions, the other four big cat species are all mostly solitary big cats, which means that they hunt alone. Tigers, like lions, are opportunistic hunters and hunting activity will mostly take place at night and during twilight. They can kill prey up to a 1,000 kg in weight.
Leopards hunt various prey, ranging from small arthropods to large mammals. They are known for hunting primates, birds, dogs and livestock, but they prefer medium-sized ungulates, such as impala and antelope species. They can carry prey items of up to 91 kg into trees to prevent other carnivores from stealing it.
The jaguar has a diverse diet, with at least 85 recorded prey species. Jaguars also hunt for reptiles, such as caimans and snakes.
Snow leopards eat small and large prey species and are incredibly agile over extremely steep and rugged terrain. They are adapted to cope with deep snow, rugged terrains and high altitudes. Their paws are furry and enormous, giving these big cats inbuilt snowshoes that spread their body weight more evenly across the snow. The giant paws also help muffle the sound of their movement and protect their toes from the biting cold.