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All 7 Types of Big Cats Around the World

When we think about the types of big cats in the world, we often think about lions and tigers, two of the most famous species. But there are actually seven different types of big cats prowling around our planet. 

Big cats are some of the largest and most fierce apex predators in the world, but there is one species that threatens them – humans. 

Many of these spectacular species are considered endangered or threatened, meaning they run the risk of becoming extinct if we don’t take action immediately. 

By learning more about these big cat species, we can understand them better and hopefully do our part to encourage the growth of their populations.

Did you know? All big cats are wild cats, but not all wild cats are big cats!

What Is a Big Cat?

A big cat is much more than an overgrown house cat! In fact, big cats can’t even purr as their little relatives can. 

Instead, what was originally the main factor that distinguished a species as a type of big cat was the ability to roar. 

This special skill comes from a piece of cartilage in their voice box called larynx that runs along the hyoid bones, which is flexible and allows them to produce a bellowing roar. 

However, only four of the cats on our list have this capability – tigers, lions, jaguars, and leopards.

Most types of big cats remaining today are members of the genus Panthera. All of these cats in this genus, except for the snow leopard, can roar. 

However, many organizations classify the types of big cats differently. Depending on the organization, the list of big cats often includes the cheetah and the cougar as well.

The 7 Types of Big Cats

Here are all the types of big cats species ordered by maximum reported weight.

1. Tiger (Panthera tigris)

Tiger portrait

Tigers are one of the most unique and majestic big cat species. In addition, tigers have a muscular body covered in vibrant orange color overlaid with black stripes and white markings. 

Despite what many people think, tigers are actually the strongest and largest of any cat, weighing up to 680 pounds. That’s a big kitty!

There were originally eight subspecies of tigers, but today only two remain – the smaller Sunda tigers and the larger, lighter-colored Continental tigers. 

Unfortunately, only about 3,000-4,500 individuals are left, and the IUCN has listed them as Endangered. A sad fact about tigers is that there are more in captivity than remain in their natural habitats.

They only inhabit about 7 percent of their original habitat distribution, including India, Indonesia, China, and Southeast Asia. Their habitats vary from tropical broadleaf forests and freshwater swamp forests in Sumatra to the boreal forest and grasslands of Russia, India, Nepal, Bhutan, and China.

The key aspects of their natural habitat are water sources and a large enough territory to find plenty of prey.

Tigers are solitary hunters, choosing to live on their own. Individuals will claim and then protect a territory that ranges from 6 to 60 square miles, the larger end of the spectrum being for males. 

When it comes time to reproduce, the animals partake in a mating ritual that involves vocalization and circling each other. If successful, the female tiger will produce multiple cubs that are born blind.

Unlike the furry cats living in your home, tigers love to swim. Rather than purring, they make other noises, including roars that can be heard two miles away. Each tiger has distinct physical characteristics. Namely, the stripe pattern is unique, like a fingerprint.

Tiger fact: A group of tigers is called an ambush or streak.

Tiger subspecies:

  • Sunda Island tiger (subspecies of the extinct Javan tiger): Panthera tigris sondaica
  • Continental tiger: Panthera tigris tigris
    • Bengal tiger
    • Siberian tiger
    • South China tiger
    • Indochinese tiger
    • Malayan tiger

2. Lion (Panthera leo)

Male African lion looking out atop rocky outcrop
The lion is by far the most famous type of big cat

The next largest type of big cat is the “king of the jungle,” the lion. Despite being smaller than tigers, the males can weigh up to 420 pounds, with females around 280 pounds. They are powerful beasts! 

African lions are known for their deep chest and regal manes that the males have.

Once broken up into more subspecies, lions are now categorized into the “northern lion” and the “southern lion.” However, these two subspecies of lions have some overlap. 

The first group includes the Asiatic lion and those found in West and North Africa, while the second is found in East and Southern Africa. 

Lion populations in the wild are shrinking, and today they’re mainly only found in sub-Saharan Africa and a few national parks, like Kruger National Park in South Africa and Serengeti in Tanzania. They are considered Vulnerable to extinction by the IUCN.

Lions tend to hang out in grasslands and the savannah so that they can hunt easily, but they can also live in deserts or rainforests. 

They prefer to live in groups called prides, where the dominant male defends the territory, and the females handle the majority of the hunting and raise the cubs.

A lion’s roar can travel even farther than a tiger’s, reaching up to five miles away. 

Despite being much larger, they do have one thing in common with your pet cat – they sleep for 16 to 20 hours a day!

However, when they decide to wake up and go for a run, they’re much faster. Lions can run at speeds up to 50 miles per hour.

Lion fact: lions are the most sociable of the big cats. They live in prides and share tasks between males and females.

Lion subspecies:

  • Northern lion: Panthera leo leo
  • Southern lion or Southern African lion: Panthera leo melanochaita

3. Jaguar (Panthera onca)

Jaguar walking on a grassy area

Jaguars are a beautiful and majestic breed of big cats, with tannish-orange bodies covered in dark black spots and hollow circles, known as rosettes. 

All black jaguars are fairly common and are sometimes referred to as panthers. They are the third-largest big cat species, weighing up to 250 pounds. 

Their thick size helps them take down their prey with one bite, the strongest bite of all the big cats relative to their size.

Unlike lions and tigers, which reside in Asia and Africa, jaguars live in parts of Central America like the Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica and broader areas in South America. 

They used to have a wide range going as far north as Texas in North America but were hunted into extinction. 

The populations that are still thriving are found mainly in Mato Grosso and the Pantanal in Brazil–the largest swamp in South America, let alone in the world. 

The IUCN considers this type of big cat to be Near Threatened due to habitat loss and fragmentation. They are found in swamps or rain forests, as they are excellent swimmers that love the water.

Jaguars live a solitary life, except for the first few years of life when the cubs stay with their mother. 

To find a mate, both the males and females signal to each other with loud roars. They also make many other sounds, like a low nasal sound to reassure a mate and other vocalizations like grunts and meows.

Jaguar fact: The word ‘jaguar’ comes from ‘yaguar’ an indigenous word that means ‘he who kills with one leap’ in South America.

4. Cougar (Puma concolor)

Cougar walking, also known as mountain lion

Also called pumas or mountain lions, the cougar is a large animal that can weigh up to 200 pounds. 

They are usually somewhere between a grey and reddish color with a white muzzle and chest. 

Cougars are excellent jumpers, reaching up to 18 feet vertically and 40 feet horizontally. That’s a pretty impressive jump!

As the only type of big cat that lives in the wild in the United States, you might already be familiar with the cougar. 

Currently, there are two subspecies of cougar, and they can be found from South to North America, as far south as Patagonia and north as Canada. Cougars can adapt to many different habitats ranging from dense forests to wide-open spaces. 

Their main concern is having plenty of animals to prey on. Their adaptability has helped them remain considered Least Concern on the IUCN Red List, but numbers are declining.

Cougars are very social animals, like the lion and cheetah—other big cat species. In addition, the kittens will remain with their mothers for up to two years. 

The babies are usually born with black spots. Cougars cannot roar but rather make a screaming sound that sounds like a human.

Cougar fact: Cougar, mountain lion, and puma are the same animal!

Cougar subspecies:

  • South American cougar or Andean mountain lion: Puma concolor concolor
  • North American cougar: Puma concolor couguar

5. Leopard (Panthera pardus)

Leopard walking in forest

Leopards and jaguars are two breeds of big cats that look very similar, but they are quite different. Leopards are smaller than jaguars, with males weighing up to 165 pounds. 

While both big cats species have rosettes, the leopards’ rosettes don’t have a spot in the middle like the jaguars’. The details of their rosettes vary based on location. There are also black leopards.

Leopards are found in China, India, Central Asia, and northeast and Sub-Saharan Africa. They live in many different natural habitats, such as deserts, mountains, and forests. 

Despite the relatively high number of leopard subspecies, they are listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List due to habitat loss.

Leopards are also solitary creatures, only intermingling to mate. They mark their territories by scratching and urinating. 

Female leopards will protect their young by hiding in lairs that they change every few days. The cubs will stay with their mother for around two years before heading off on their own.

Leopard fact: Because of their adapted retinas, leopards can see seven times better in the dark than humans.

Leopard subspecies:

  • Persian leopard (Anatolian leopard): Panthera pardus tulliana
  • Javan leopard: Panthera pardus melas
  • Sri Lankan leopard: Panthera pardus kotiya
  • Amur leopard: Panthera pardus orientalis
  • African leopard: Panthera pardus pardus
  • Indochinese leopard: Panthera pardus delacouri
  • Arabian leopard: Panthera pardus nimr
  • Indian leopard: Panthera pardus fusca

6. Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)

Cheetah in its natural habitat

Cheetahs are another big cat species that look similar to leopards and jaguars. The primary way to tell the difference is by the size and the spots. 

Cheetahs are the smallest of the three, and they have solid black spots instead of rosettes. They also have characteristically small heads. 

Their bodies are designed for super speed, their long limbs helping them to accelerate up to 60 miles per hour in only three seconds! They’re the fastest animal on earth. However, they tire very quickly, and usually, their chases last less than a minute.

As Africa’s most engaged species of big cats, they are found very sparsely throughout the continent. Cheetahs have disappeared from 76 percent of their historic range.

They prefer savannahs, shrublands, and grasslands, as this is where they do their hunting. However, they can adapt to many different habitats. They were once distributed nearly worldwide but are now listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.

Cheetahs are sometimes considered a type of big cat, and sometimes not. This is because they lack the flexible part of the voice box and cannot roar. Instead, cheetahs are known for their high-pitched chirp. 

They also communicate with each other through barks and purrs. Cheetahs have a unique social structure, with the females living on their own or raising cubs while the males form coalitions and live together.

Cheetah fact: The cheetah is the fastest land animal!

Cheetah subspecies:

  • Northwest African cheetah: Acinonyx jubatus hecki
  • Southeast African cheetah: Acinonyx jubatus jubatus
  • Northeast African cheetah: Acinonyx jubatus soemmeringii
  • Asiatic cheetah: Acynonyx jubatus venaticus

7. Snow Leopard (Panthera uncia)

Snow leopard portrait

The snow leopard looks a bit similar to the leopard, but shockingly enough, it’s more closely related to the tiger. 

They have very thick white, yellow, or grey fur with rosettes. Their warm fur helps them survive in the cold climates where they live, up in the South and Central Asia mountains.

They also have short limbs, which help them stay agile on steep, rocky cliffs and wide feet, which help them navigate across the snow.

In addition, snow leopards hunt wild boars, wild goats, flying squirrels, Himalayan blue sheep, and deer.

Snow leopards are another solitary type of big cat except for when the mother is caring for her cubs for the first 18 months of their lives. 

They cover wide ranges and can travel more than 25 miles in a single night. Snow leopards cannot roar like the rest of the breeds of big cats we’ve seen so far on our list. Instead, they make noises like growling, puffing, and mewing.

Just like many of the other big cats, humans have negatively affected their population. 

They are listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, mostly due to the illegal hunting of snow leopards for their fur. Despite this fact, they are known not to be very aggressive towards humans. They do their best to stay hidden.

Snow leopard fact: Despite being called the snow leopard, this big cat is more closely related to the tiger than the leopard. 

Note About Types of Big Cats

In the extended definition of big cats, the Eurasian lynx, clouded leopard, and Sunda clouded leopard are also part of the big cats family.

FAQ About Big Cats

How many species of big cats are threatened with extinction?

Of all seven types of big cats, only the puma (or mountain lion) is listed as Least Concern. The remaining six big cats are threatened with extinction, with the tiger categorized as Endangered.

What are the big cats that can roar?

Tigers, lions, jaguars, and leopards are the only big cats that can roar. Cougars, cheetahs, and snow leopards make a screaming sound, high-pitched chirp, or growls.

Which big cat can roar the loudest?

The African lion has the loudest roar of all big cats, reaching 114 decibels. It can be heard from five miles away and is almost as loud as thunder, typically registering at about 120 decibels!

Which big cat is the strongest?

Even though the lion is the king of the forest, the tiger is not only the biggest big cat, but it is also the strongest. They win in strength, speed, coordination, and fighting skills.

Which big cat is the smartest?

The king of the forest! Lions have a more complex social behavior when compared to other big cats, which is associated with animal intelligence.

Who is more powerful: jaguar or tiger?

While jaguars are considered to have a very powerful bite and are faster than tigers, tigers are larger and stronger overall than jaguars.

Which big cat has the strongest bite?

While a jaguar’s bite force is only three-quarters as strong as a tiger’s bite force, the jaguar has the most powerful bite pound-for-pound of any big cat when considering their body weight since they’re considerably smaller than the tigers.

Who is stronger: lion or tiger?

Even though the lion is the king of the forest, the tiger is not only the biggest big cat, but it is also the strongest. They win in strength, speed, coordination, and fighting skills.