The seven biggest members of the feline family are called the "big cats." Find out how they differ in behavioral and habitat characteristics.
The four largest, most ferocious meat-eaters of the cat family are known as the “big cats.” The term is used informally to differentiate the larger cat species from the smaller ones. These members of the genus Panthera: the tiger, lion, jaguar and leopard are the only cats able to roar. A more expansive definition of “big cats” also includes the cheetah, snow leopard and cougar which are sometimes referred to as the “great cats” to distinguish from the other big cats.
Native to much of eastern and southern Asia, the tiger (Panthera tigris) is the largest, heaviest and most powerful among the cat family. Tigers are ambush predators that usually hunt alone at night. With their body size, and strength ten times that of a man, these cats can easily knock large prey off balance. They also have great leaping ability and speeds reaching 49-65 kph (35-40 mph). The word “tiger” came from the Greek word “tigris,” which is believed to come from the Persian source meaning “arrow,” a reference to the animal’s speed and also the origin for the name of the River Tigris; and the word Panthera is believed to be East Asian in origin, meaning, “the yellowish animal.” The tiger’s most recognizable feature is its pattern of dark vertical stripes that overlays near-white to reddish-orange fur, with lighter under-parts. Most tigers have over 100 stripes and each pattern is different among animals.
The so called “King of the Jungle” is the second-largest living cat after the tiger. Having disappeared from North Africa, the Middle East, and Western Asia, they are found today in sub-Saharan Africa and in Asia with a critically endangered population in northwest India. Lions (Panthera leo), which typically inhabit savannas and grasslands, are the only cats that live in groups, or prides. These big cats are the only members of the feline family to display obvious sexual dimorphism (males and females look noticeably different), with the mane of the adult male lion, unique among cats, is one of the most distinctive characteristics of the species.