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How to Tell the Difference Between the Big Cats
Among experts, "big cats" refers to those animals of the genus Panthera, where a genus is a group or category of organisms of similar characteristics that can contain one or more species.
- The Panthera genus contains the main roaring cat types, also known as "the big four" — tigers, lions, jaguars, and leopards.
- The general cat family is the genus Felidae and contains more animals, often referred to as big cats, including pumas, cheetahs, and lynx.
Below, you will find the main characteristics and differences between the animals people usually consider the primary big cats: lions, tigers, jaguars, leopards, panthers, pumas, lynx, and cheetahs.
I hope you find this helpful and that it helps you spot the difference easily from now on!
The tiger is the largest cat species, with several subspecies, including the Bengal and Siberian. The sizes of tigers vary significantly between different populations.
Tigers are most recognizable by their vertical black stripes on a background of orange. The stripe pattern is actually on the animal's skin, and it is unique to each tiger (much like fingerprints on humans).
Tigers can swim well, along with jaguars. They also generally hunt alone.
Tigers in the wild can be found in many different locations — though they are mainly spread across Southeast Asia, China, and India.
Lions are the second largest big cat, after the tiger. Although the male adult lions don't have any discerning skin/fur patterns, they do have a signature, recognizable mane of fur around their face.
Female lions do most of the hunting, often at night. However, only 1 in 5 hunts end in a kill. Therefore scavenging for food (in other words, stealing from other predators) is also vital. They mainly prey on wildebeest, zebra, and gazelle, though they will attack other animals too, including buffalo and hippos. Lions are the only big cats to hunt cooperatively, working together to find food.
The leopard is the smallest of the four big cats, among the tigers, lions, and jaguars. Leopards are found mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, but they also exist in South Asia (India, China, Malaysia, and Indonesia).
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Leopards have a comparatively long body and short legs, with a large skull and powerful jaw. They look similar to the jaguar. However, they are smaller and lighter, and the fur patterning is slightly different. On a leopard, the rosettes (circular markings on their fur/skin) are smaller and more closely spaced together and don't usually have black spots in the center of the rosettes like jaguars do. However, the leopard's rosette pattern and overall color can vary slightly, depending on where they live.
Leopards are very adaptable; they can exist in a range of different habitats. They can hunt and eat many different animals, run very fast, are very stealthy hunters, and are excellent tree climbers.
The jaguar is the only big cat in the Panthera genus that can be found living in the Americas. The jaguar is the third-largest cat (after tigers and lions), and they can be found in the southern United States, Mexico, most of Central America, and across the north of South America.
The jaguar is often confused with the leopard due to the markings on the coat. Jaguars are, however, heavier, larger, and sturdier than leopards. Also, the rosettes on their patterning are larger, less closely packed, and usually have black dots in the centers. Jaguars also live in America, while leopards live in Asia and Africa.
The jaguar, just like the tiger, is a good swimmer. It also has a mighty bite, more so than the other big cats. This allows jaguars to kill prey by biting through their skulls. Jaguars have short tails and legs and are quite stocky, but they are powerful and sturdy.
There is not actually a species called the panther. However, "panther" is a name given to either leopards or jaguars that have all black coats due to an excess of the dark pigment melanin. They can also be referred to as melanistic leopards or melanistic jaguars.
While the coat is usually all black, sometimes the rosette markings can just be seen if you look closely (not recommended in real life!)
Pumas are also known as cougars, mountain lions, catamounts, and over 40 other local names. They can be found all over — from Canada down to the southern Andes of South America. The puma is in the feline family and is native to the Americas. It is more closely related to the domestic cat than to a lion.
The puma is nocturnal and hunts a large variety of prey, including deer, moose, cattle, horses, and even rodents. Pumas are the largest of the small cats and have a recognizable facial characteristic of a black ring reaching from the corners of the mouth and around the nose.
The cheetah is a large-sized feline found in Africa and southwestern Asia and is the fastest land animal in the world. They can reach speeds of around 72mph in short bursts but cannot run long distances.
Cheetahs are slender in build with a narrow waist, deep chest, and a proportionally small head. Their fur is short and coarse and has a pattern of evenly spaced black spots. They have black stripes on their faces, which run from the inner corners of their eyes down to the corners of the mouth. These dark areas help keep the sun out of their eyes to help them with their vision for hunting.
Cheetahs usually hunt during the day when lions are not very active. Their success rate is good, with a kill being made for every other attempt.
|Type of Cat||Native Region||Average Weight||Average Speed||Average Lifespan|
Asia and Russia
200-680 lbs (male) 140-370 lbs (female)
Africa and India
420 lbs (male) 280 lbs (female)
15-16 (female) 8-10 (male)
South and North America
120-220 lbs (male) 64-140 lbs (female)
Africa, Western and Central Asia, Southern Russia, and India
68 lbs (male) 51-60 lbs (female)
Africa and central Iran
Other Big Cats
Although not in 'the big four' category, the following cats are all interesting creatures with their own unique characteristics.
Read on if you'd like to learn more about:
- Caracal: Read all about this slender, medium-sized cat.
- Lynx: The smallest Lynx species is the Bobcat.
- Ocelot: A wildcat species closer to a domestic cat's size.
- Clouded Leopard: Known for unusual fur patterning.
- Snow Leopard: Has specific characteristics that make it suited to life in the snow.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Please Leave a Comment!
lithu on November 23, 2019:
puma can to15 feet
Pardeshi on August 30, 2019:
Tiger hunts alone
Hi on March 25, 2019:
Loved the cougar pun :)
Terry Wilson on March 16, 2019:
Big cats are the most fantastic animals in the world. Black Jaguars are my personal favourites.
cfgvnhmnb on August 19, 2017:
lions RULE!!!! They are the king of beasts for a REASON people!
Zaton-Taran from California on June 26, 2017:
The leopard is an absolutely devastating cat, truth be told. Truly mighty and fearsome because of how stealthy it is. It cannot, however, match the kingly lion, though. http://pinstor.us/articles/african-lion-facts-the-...
Indra christian on November 16, 2016:
My favorites is a cougar
punith on November 16, 2016:
AbD on September 26, 2016:
love black Jaguar .. u see the design in it when u focus .. actually they are epic and unique
Tiny D on September 02, 2016:
Melissa A Smith-- Taranwanderer-- Cheetahs are not big cats. Leopards and pumas definitely are.
Not quite right, actually neither Puma is a big cats, the rest is correct.
david on June 21, 2016:
my favourite cat is cheeth
Anonymous on May 27, 2016:
It's really useful and detailed! Thanks a lot.
p.s. cheetahs are the best!
Kathleen Ball on May 20, 2016:
I love tigers but I have a minature black leopard who is a black cat.
Tigers used to be my favorite zoo animal because of their coloring but now my favorite is a giraffe.
hello on February 24, 2016:
Melissa A Smith from New York on January 28, 2015:
Taranwanderer-- Cheetahs are not big cats. Leopards and pumas definitely are.
Prakhar on January 23, 2015:
Very nice description Lens! You distinguished them very well. I bookmarked this page also if I forget but that time would be last to visit this page.
amazing on November 30, 2014:
Leopards are awesome! they should be everyone's favourite animal. If you don't like leopards, then i think you should because they're AMAZING!!!
Lightning on November 30, 2014:
I also think leopards are epic! Why don't they have a lot of votes. They look awesome!
Striker on November 30, 2014:
The leopard is brilliant. They look epic! I think when the leopard hunts, most kills come out successfully.
2degreeshawty on June 23, 2014:
Wow very informative
AshokPanigrahi on March 11, 2014:
All the species of Cat family are fabulous for their individual characters, but Cheeta, the best. Of course we can not ignore Lion and Tiger for their habits.
sukanta-biswas-1610 on February 15, 2014:
Great work sir.....i was always confused with jaguar and leopards, but now everything is clear. This kind of poll is very tight sits as all the big cats are my favourite...specialy Tigers, Lions and Cheetahs......an awesome lens
dwelburn on February 05, 2014:
Stunning photos and great descriptions. I'm quite familiar with all these cats but it was still well worth reading. Thank you.
peacefullyhappy on December 14, 2013:
I love cats! Great lens!
Snakesmum on September 12, 2013:
Very nice lens - I've always loved cats, of any variety. When visiting a zoo, the cats are always on the must see list. :-)
sierradawn lm on August 05, 2013:
Your lens is excellent!
efriedman on September 30, 2012:
The big cats are fascinating (little one are, too, for different reasons :-)