You may have heard the phrase “big cat” before. No, it doesn’t refer to a particularly large house cat, but rather to a category of cats. “Big cat” is a term typically used to describe any member of the genus Panthera, though it can mean different things to different people.
Some consider every member of the larger subfamily Pantherinae to be big cats—for example, clouded leopards (genus Neofelis). Sometimes, the phrase “big cat” just refers to any member of the cat family (Felidae) that is large, such as the cougar (genus Puma), the cheetah (genus Acinonyx), and the Eurasian lynx (genus Lynx, species lynx).
Tigers, Lions, Jaguars, Leopards, and Snow Leopards are the extant (or currently living) members. You may be wondering how leopards and snow leopards are members of genus Panthera but clouded leopards are not. Clouded leopards are not true leopards—they branched off into their own genus roughly six million years ago; they are in the larger subfamily of Pantherinae, but not Panthera specifically.
One feature sometimes used to distinguish big cats from other cats is the ability to roar, but that ability is only found in the Panthera genus, not the additional species. Roaring itself is an important vocalization, but it isn’t a surefire way to distinguish what a “big cat” is. For example, snow leopards, in the family Panthera, cannot roar.
So, big cat can mean something different to everyone, but let’s learn a little bit more about each of the cats listed above:
Tigers are the largest cat species on the planet! There are several subspecies and they are easily recognized by their orange color with black stripes (though Bengal tigers are occasionally white with black stripes).
They are solitary and territorial animals; cubs (big cat offspring are not called kittens) stay with their mother for 2 years. These cats are found throughout Asia—although they are endangered—and their population is dwindling.
Lions are a social species of large cats found in the grasslands and savannas of Africa. Males are recognizable by their long hair surrounding their necks, called manes. Lionesses do the hunting for the pride (social group of lions), which is comprised of several adult males, related females, and cubs. These animals are listed as vulnerable, which means they are close to becoming endangered.
Jaguars are the only member of the Panthera genus found in the Americas. Individual cats can be found in the Western United States, but they have had a reduced range in Central and South America since the early 20th century. They are solitary animals and ambush predators, hunting in tropical and subtropical forests and swamps. They are recognizable by their spots, which are black rosettes with spots in the middle. However, melanistic (or all black) jaguar occasionally appear; these cats are informally known as black panthers—although they are not a separate species—and the phrase “black panther” has been used to describe melanistic leopards as well. Jaguars are near-threatened, which means their numbers are decreasing and their populations are being closely monitored.
Leopards have a wide range and are found in Sub-Saharan Africa, in parts of Western and Central Asia and on the Indian subcontinent. They are recognizable by their spots; they look like jaguars with their spotted fur, but leopards are shorter with a smaller head, and their rosette-shaped spots do not have dots in the middle. Leopards are opportunistic hunters, hunting mostly on the ground at night; though in the Serengeti, they are known for attacking prey by leaping from trees. Leopards are listed as vulnerable, meaning they are potentially on their way to the endangered species list.
Snow leopards live in the mountain regions of Central and South Asia, living at elevations from 3,000 to 4,500 feet. Their fur is whitish grey, with black rosettes, distinguishing them from other leopards which are yellow or brown in color. Snow leopards have large nasal passages which helps warm the cold, dry air they breathe. Their tails are covered thickly with fur and provide fat storage; sleeping snow leopards use their warm tails like blankets to protect their faces when they sleep. They are listed as vulnerable, meaning they may appear on the endangered species list in the future.
There are two species of clouded leopards—the mainland clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) and the Sunda clouded leopard (Neofelis diardi). The mainland clouded leopard is found in the Himalayan foothills in Southeast Asia and southern China and the Sunda clouded leopard is found in Borneo and Sumatra. They are considered an evolutionary link between two cat families Pantherinae and Felinae. Their fur is dark grey with a black blotched pattern. Clouded leopards are solitary and hunt by stalking or ambushing prey. They are excellent climbers and use trees as rest sites. Both species of clouded leopards are listed as vulnerable, meaning they can potentially end up on the endangered species list.
The cougar (also known as a puma, mountain lion, red tiger, or catamount) is the only cat on this list that you may see in the wild around Pittsburgh; however, their populations are severely reduced in the eastern half of North America. These cats are adaptable to a wide variety of habitats, which is why they are found all throughout North and South America. This wide range is the reason people living in different regions have different names for them. They are ambush predators, preferring to hunt deer, though they will eat insects and rodents. While cougars are large, they are not always the apex (or top) predator and will occasionally give food they caught away to jaguars, grizzly bears, or even alligators! Cougars are listed as least concern, meaning their population is holding steady, though their range has shrunk.
Cheetahs are known for their speed; as the fastest land animal, they are capable of running up to 80 miles per hour! Cheetahs can be found in the Serengeti, Saharan mountain ranges, and in hilly areas of Iran. Cheetahs separate into three kinds of social groups—females with cubs, all-male groups, and solitary males. Females are more likely to travel further distances while males will establish and stay in smaller territories. They are active during the day and spend most of their time hunting for things like impala or springbok. Cheetahs are listed as vulnerable, with one of the main threats being a lack of genetic diversity, which makes it difficult for the species to adapt and evolve over generations, reducing the chance for individual animals to survive.
The Eurasian lynx is found from Europe into Central Asia and Siberia, living in temperate or boreal (snow or Taiga) forests. They have short, red-brown coats, and are more colorful than most animals sharing their habitat. In the winter, their fur grows in thicker and greyer. These cats have relatively long legs and large webbed and furred paws that act like snowshoes, allowing them to walk on top of the snow. They have bobbed (or short) tails, much like one of their cousins you might see around Pittsburgh—the bobcat. They hunt small mammals and birds but will occasionally take down young moose or deer. The Eurasian lynx is listed as least concern, with a stable population.
Jo Tauber is the Gallery Experience Coordinator for CMNH’s Life Long Learning Department, as well as the official Registrar for the Living Collection. Museum staff, volunteers, and interns are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences and knowledge gained from working at the museum.