There are 38 species of cats on the planet. Most, like the margay, are relatively small. But some—the lion, tiger, leopard, snow leopard, clouded leopard, jaguar, lynx, and cheetah—are big. These big cats are among the most beloved and recognizable animals on the planet.
Most big cats are members of the genus Panthera. Small and medium cats, including housecats, are member of Felis. Cheetahs, which do not have retractable claws, are in their own genus, called Acinonyx. Big cats are found around the world in habitats as varied as mangrove swamps in India to wooded forests in the western U.S.
All about that roar
The main difference between big cats and most of their cousins is in the noises they make. Smaller cats purr; big cats (with the exception of cheetahs, lynx, and snow leopards) roar. They also squeak, grunt, scream, and make several other sounds, thanks to a ligament in their voice boxes. The lion’s roar is the most famous and can be heard up to five miles away because of the specialized structure of its vocal chords, a characteristic it shares with the tiger.
Lions are the only big cats that live in groups, called prides. Lionesses hunt together, bringing down large prey like wildebeests and zebras. All other big cats live solitary lives, with the exception of mothers and cubs. Some, like the snow leopard, are especially elusive and rarely seen.
The largest big cat is the Siberian tiger, which can weigh an astonishing 660 pounds and stretch more than 10 feet nose to tail. It is one of six surviving tiger subspecies. Tigers have been hunted extensively as trophies and for use in traditional Chinese medicine and are listed as endangered by the IUCN Red List.
As apex predators, big cats are bellwethers for their ecosystems. If they’re doing well, the ecosystem is doing well, and vice versa. As a whole, big cats are under increasing threats from poaching, habitat loss, and other environmental factors.