10 Facts You Didn’t Know About Big Cats (& Why You Should Volunteer with Them)

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Even self-professed dog people have to marvel at the power and grace of big cats. Large felines are both ferocious and beautiful, capable of inspiring awe and terror at the same time – it’s little wonder they have become the stuff of folklore and legend all around the world. 

A cheetah resting on top of a log

The cheetah is the world's fastest land mammal

Real-life big cats are more interesting than any mythical creatures. Famously secretive, they are constantly surprising even dedicated cat lovers. Consider yourself a cat expert? Here are 10 facts we’re sure you didn’t know that will inspire you to seek out opportunities to volunteer with big cats

1. Jaguars like to fish.

Unlike your typical house cat, jaguars love the water. They are the most aquatic of all the big cats and are at home in rivers, where they hunt and play. Jaguars catch fish, and also prey on turtles, caimans, and frogs. Even when hunting land animals, jaguars typically travel up and down streams, so they are never far from a waterway.

Here’s a bonus big cat fact for you: Jaguars are such strong swimmers that they occasionally swim across the Panama Canal!

[Ready to learn more? Volunteer in Jaguar Conservation]

2. The world’s cheetah population has halved since 1970.

In the face of habitat destruction, illegal hunting, and wildlife trafficking, the cheetah population is plummeting. There are now only around 7,000 left in the wild, mostly concentrated in a handful of countries in southern Africa. Cheetah conservation is difficult, as they range far outside of protected areas to hunt, exposing them to many threats, such as poachers and farmers.

The numbers are frightening, but it’s not too late to take action to stop them falling even further. GVI’s cheetah conservation program in South Africa gives you the chance to volunteer with big cats and help these magnificent creatures. On daily research drives through the bushveld, you’ll help to collect data and track the elusive cat. Your hard work could help stop the world’s fastest land animal from racing toward extinction. 

Leopards sleeping in a tree

Leopards typically sleep in trees and use this elevated position to get a better look at their prey

3. Leopards hunt from trees.

You’ve probably seen the photos of leopards lounging in trees, dangling languid paws and tails from the branches. Leopards do more than just sleep in trees though – they use the elevation for hunting. Their spots help them blend in with the foliage until they’re ready to ambush an unlucky animal, killing their prey with one deadly pounce. 

4. Cheetahs can’t roar – but they can purr.

The strict definition of “big cat” only refers to the members of the Panthera genus – lions, tigers, jaguars, and leopards – all of which have the ability to roar. The cheetah is only included in the broader definition of the term and can’t roar, but as the only big cat that can purr, it seems the most like … well, a big cat! Cheetahs’ purrs sound much like your regular moggy’s rumbles, but due to their larger size cheetahs purr so vigorously the hairs on their chests vibrate. Instead of a roar, cheetahs make an almost birdlike chirping sound, which can be heard more than a mile away. 

[Want to hear it for yourself? Volunteer with Cheetahs in South Africa]

Fresh Jaguar tracks

Fresh Jag tracks are a common sighting on the beaches of the Caribbean coastline

5. Around 96 per cent of tigers’ habitat has been lost in the last century.

Lions may be the ones dubbed “king of the jungle,” but it’s tigers who rule the verdant jungles of Asia. The largest of the big cats can have territories as large as 600 square miles, but their habitat is increasingly threatened by land development and growing human populations. The spaces where they can roam are diminishing by the day. Habitat loss has massively impacted tiger numbers. Today, only around 4,000 tigers are left in the wild, all the more reason to volunteer with big cats now, before its too late! 

6. The lion is the only big cat with a tasseled tail.

Male lions are distinct for their great shaggy necks, but both male and females stand out from other cats thanks to the tassel on the end of their tail. The bushy black tail tip grows in when cubs reach seven months old. This evolutionary quirk has many uses. Lions use their tassels to lead each other through long savannah grass, to give cubs a “come here” signal, or to communicate with each other when they are hunting in groups. 

A baby cheetah cub spotted in South Africa

A baby cheetah cub spotted in South Africa

7. Leopards are the chameleons of the big cat family.

Leopards are ultra-adaptable and live in more places than any other big cat. They make themselves at home in almost any kind of habitat, including grasslands, mountains, forests, deserts, and coastal areas. As a result, leopards are found in sub-Saharan Africa, India, Russia, China, Sri Lanka, and the Arabian Peninsula, just to name a few places. 

[Excited to volunteer with big cats? Embark on a Wildlife Expedition]

8. Tigers have whiskers all over their bodies.

Tigers have whiskers in five places - around their noses, on their cheeks, above their eyes, behind their front legs, and scattered throughout their fur. These whiskers detect sensory information, helping tigers to navigate in the dark and attack their prey more accurately. Tigers can see well at night – six times better than we feeble humans – but because their pupils dilated in the dark, it’s more difficult for them to see objects close up. The whiskers on a tiger’s muzzle can help compensate for this, enabling it to feel its way through the dark. 

Lioness with her cubs

Lions take care of their offspring in crèche-like groups to protect them

9. Cheetahs can accelerate faster than sports cars.

A cheetah can go from zero to 60 miles per hour in three seconds, a rate of acceleration that would leave most cars in their dust. Their whole bodies are designed for speed, with non-retractable claws for grip, an elongated body and flexible spine, and their exceptionally long tails. Measuring up to nearly three feet, a cheetah’s muscular tail is used as a type of rudder, counter-balancing their weight to allow them to change direction suddenly when running at top speed. 

10. Lions are the ultimate social cats.

Lions are the only big cats that live in groups. Their social lifestyle has given rise to some unique behaviors. Although the males are responsible for defending the group, lionesses are the heart of the pride. Lionesses typically stay with the pride they are born into for their whole life, whereas males are kicked out when they are two or three.

The females also share parenting responsibility – they don’t just suckle their own young, they let any cubs in the pride drink their milk, and they pool their cubs in crèche-like groups to protect them from hyenas and leopards. Research has even shown that lions fight for and defend desirable territories, and then pass them on to female offspring. In this way, some prides inhabit the same territory for decades. 

[Considering Big Cat Research? ]

A cheetah purring

It might look like this cheetah is roaring, but it is in fact purring

Do you want to volunteer with big cats yet?

If you want to learn even more facts big cats, seek out some amazing opportunities to volunteer with big cats to gain hands-on experience and unmatched field knowledge. Get ready to expand your big cat expertise and fall even more in love with these majestic felines!

This article was sponsored by . Established in 1997, GVI is an award-winning organization that provides opportunities for travelers to contribute to sustainable projects all over the world, including working toward the conservation of big cats.