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What are the Big Cats?

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  • Written By: Michael Anissimov
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 11 November 2016
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The big cats include all the species in genera Panthera — the tiger, lion, leopard, and jaguar. All these cats can roar, and are sometimes called great cats. Another, more expansive definition of the big cats includes the cheetah, snow leopard, clouded leopard, and cougar. This breaks the more restrictive, monophyletic definition of Panthera, which includes the exclusive descendants of a common ancestor.

The big cats are some of the strongest land predators on the planet. Aside from rare historic reports of domesticated leopards, none are domestic, and all are deadly, though tourists on safari can get close to leopards in relative safety. There are reports of man-eating variants of all but the jaguar, though humans are not the preferred prey of big cats. They usually only target us when other prey is depleted. However, the most prolific man-eating tiger has killed more than 436 people, with 300,000 deaths alone in India between 1800 and 1900.

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All of the big cats are beautiful and elegant, making popular exhibits in zoos. Like all other cats, the big cats are exclusively carnivores, as evidenced from their saber-like teeth and powerful skulls. Of all the big cats, the heaviest and most powerful is the tiger, found in Southeast Asia. The largest tigers can be 4 m (13 ft) in total length and weigh up to 300 kg (660 lb), comparable to the largest extinct felids. Tigers are known for their distinct coat which is covered with beautiful dark vertical stripes, overlaid on near-white and orange fur. This gives tigers a fiery appearance. A poll conducted by Animal Planet in 2004 found that the tiger is the world's favorite animal, narrowly beating out "man's best friend", the dog.

The lion is another of the big cats, popular and well known throughout the world. It has tan-colored fur, and is known for the striking different appearance of males and females — males have the famous large mane. Unlike most other cats, lions are highly social, living in groups called prides. Their range extends across most of sub-Saharan Africa and a tiny part of India, but tens of thousands of years ago, lions were also found in Europe, China, Beringia (far northeast Russia), and North America. The extinct American cave lion was one of the largest land predators aside from bears.

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