Learn to Identify the Big Cats

Here's the quick and dirty low-down on how to identify the big cats. Click on the photos for purchasing information.

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Lion (Panthera leo)

Lions are among the biggest of the cats.

They are fairly uniform in color, and adult male lions have large manes.

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Tiger (Panthera tigris)

Tigers come in a large range of sizes, but the biggest tigers are as big as lions.

Siberian tigers are the largest and have extra shaggy fur to fend off the cold.

Tiger coats have widely spaced black stripes over orange on top and white underneath.


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White Tiger (Panthera tigris)

White tigers are the same species as other tigers, just without the orange color.

All the white tigers in captivity are descendents of Bengal Tigers.


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You will unfortunately see tigers that have been bred for extreme features.

Snow Tiger (Panthera tigris)

The name "snow tiger" usually refers to the most well known snow inhabiting tiger - the Siberian or Amur tiger. It has also been used in reference to the coat pattern of the white Bengal tiger, although this is less common.  In some older references, almost any large cat might be referred to as a tiger, so depending on the source it's also possible that "snow tiger" could refer to the Snow Leopard as well.

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Jaguar (Panthera onca)

Jaguars are stocky and muscular, with large rosettes over a tawny coat that fades to spotted white underneath.

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Leopard (Panthera pardus)

Leopards are compact and muscular, with closely spaced rosettes over a tawny coat that goes more pale underneath.

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Leopard and Jaguar Comparision
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Jaguars have more massive heads as well as larger blotchy rosettes.

Leopards are more compact and have tightly clustered rosettes.

The biggest difference between these two cats though is that they live on different continents.

Jaguars live in the Americas, and leopards live in Asia and Africa.

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Black Leopard (Panthera pardus)
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These leopards are the same species as other leopards. They are just darker (melanistic). To add to the identity crisis, there are also black jaguars.

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Snow Leopard (Uncia uncia)
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Snow leopards have closely spaced rosettes over a very pale coat that goes to white underneath.

They have thick coats and big feet for living in snow.

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Puma (Puma concolor)

Pumas have a mostly uniform reddish coat that fades out underneath.

They have a distinctive black ring around the nose to the corners of the mouth.

Pumas are also known as cougars, mountain lions, catamounts, and many other local names.

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Puma and Lioness Comparision
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Pumas and lions without manes have some superficial similarities, but the dead giveaway between them is that pumas have dark streaks from the nose down to the mouth.

The biggest difference between these two cats though is that they live on different continents.

Pumas live in the Americas, and lions live in Africa and India.

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)
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Cheetahs are slender and delicate with proportionally small heads.

They have facial stripes from the inner eyes to the corners of the mouth.

Their coats have solitary spots, except for the King Cheetah (not shown here), which has large blotchy stripes.

However, king cheetahs are the same species as other cheetahs.


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Leopard and Cheetah Comparision
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Sitting side by side they don't look all that much alike, but many people confuse leopards and cheetahs.

Leopards are larger and more muscular. They have rosettes of spots.

Cheetahs are much more petite. They have solitary spots and unambiguous facial tear stripes.

Clouded Leopard (Neofelis nebulosa)
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Clouded Leopards are known for their big teeth and even more so for the big clouded patches on their coats.

Ocelot (Leopardus pardalis)
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Ocelots have spots that form large refined rosettes over a tawny coat. They are spotted white underneath.

Note the thick black stripes around the eyes, up the forehead, and out from the corners of the eyes.

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Serval (Leptailurus serval)
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Servals have solid solitary spots over a tawny coat

They are most easy to identify by their enormous ears.

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Caracal (Caracal caracal)
 
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Caracals also have giant ears and a tawny coat, but no spots.

Extra tufts of hair on the ears give the caracal a slight resemblance to the lynx.


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Bobcat (Lynx rufus)
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Bobcats have a variety of spots and streaks. Their fur is darker on top, fading to spotted white underneath.

Like the other lynx species, bobcats have tufted ears and facial ruffs, but both tend to be short.

They also have short tails.


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Canada Lynx (Lynx canadensis)
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Canada Lynx have mottled fur, almost uniform and more pale underneath.

Like the other lynx species, they have tufted ears and facial ruffs.

They also have short black-tipped tails and large feet.


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Bobcat and Lynx Comparision
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Bobcats and lynx both have ear tufts, facial ruffs and beards, but all of these are more exaggerated on the lynx.

Bobcats have discrete spots and streaks. Lynx tend to be mottled, more uniform, and pale by comparison.

Bobcats may appear smaller than lynx due to shorter legs, but their weights are comparable and often even heavier than the lynx.

Bobcats and lynx also both have short tails. Lynx tails look about the same from above or below, ending with a black tip. Bobcat tails have a black tip on top and a white tip underneath.

Lynx have longer legs, especially in the back, and much bigger feet for walking on snow.

Eurasian Lynx (Lynx lynx)
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The Eurasian Lynx has more distinctly spotted but still pale fur and is larger than the Canada Lynx.

Iberian or Spanish Lynx (Lynx pardinus)

The Iberian Lynx (not shown) has very distinct dark spots, but also the characteristic lynx ear tufts and facial ruffs.

 

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