The Cat as Predator

It has often been said of the 'Big Cats' - and of many of the smaller wild cats too - that they are the perfect predator, a killing machine, designed with every part specially tuned for the art of hunting and catching prey.

The facts certainly are remarkable - the Snow Leopard has massive power in its rear legs which can propel the cat to jump over 40ft along the ground and this is often used to great effect in the final phase of hunting - the Cheetah, with its specialised bone structure and musculature has been recorded at speeds in excess of 60mph and can 'out chase' any animal - the Serval, with its particularly large and sensitive ears can detect the movement of its burrowing prey beneath the surface of the ground.

The Senses

Of the three senses - hearing, sight and smell - the first two are of prime importance to the cat when it comes to hunting and although the cats sense of smell is extremely keen, it is seldom used in prey detection. The cats eye is particularly developed in a number of ways which help in prey detection. Where as the human eye is equally developed to view in both the horizontal and vertical plane, the cat's eye is exceptionally sensitive to movement on the horizontal axis - its is able to spot the movement of its prey from a great distance. Special receptor cells in the cats eye are particularly sensitive in low light conditions and enable a greater degree of 'night vision' - a cat can detect movement in approximately 20% of the light that would be required by a human.

The cats' hearing is also extraordinary sensitive. A cat can hear sounds through a range of about 70 kHz, approximately three times that of a human and as a result can hear much higher pitched sounds, such as those given of by small rodents and insects. This coupled with the fact that the cats ear flaps or pinnae can rotate through 180 degrees enable it to pinpoint with great accuracy even the faintest sound.

Killing Bite

Once detected, the prey has first to be caught and then killed - to do this the cat has specialised limb/muscle combinations which balance the need for speed and agility in the chase with a requirement for power and strength in holding down and killing its stricken prey. The teeth and jaw muscles of a cat are also specially developed - unlike other carnivores the wild cat has only 28 or 30 teeth, depending on the species and this is mainly due to the fact that they have a shortened jaw, thus enabling a stronger and wider bite. The canine teeth of a cat are generally larger and stronger than those found in other carnivores, which help in the effectiveness of the nape bite, used to dislocate the vertebrae or the throat bite, used to damage the victims trachea. All wild cats adopt variations on these two killing techniques .

Due to enlarged nasal passages, which enable more air intake during the chase, the teeth of the cheetah are smaller than in other cats of its size and so it uses the throat bite to suffocate its victim. The jaguar on the other hand has particularly well developed temporalis muscles which enable it to use the nape bite to great effect - jaguars have been known to pierce the scull of their victim with one swift bite.

The Specialist Hunter

Many of the various species of wild cat have developed optimum hunting techniques which encompass not only their own physical attributes but also take into account the features of their habitat and the weaknesses of the particular prey species that they are hunting.

In the Serengeti, the Lion and Cheetah share the same habitat, but as a result of their individual attributes as hunters, coexist with relatively little competition for prey species. The cheetah has superior speed over the lion and is able to give chase to the fast grazing ungulates such as the impala and gazelle - the lion however cannot match the speed of these herbivores, and instead concentrates on the bigger and less agile species, such as Zebra and Wildebeest. The cheetah is one of the most accomplished of hunters within the wild cat species - it catches up to 60%-70% of prey that it hunts. The lion on the other hand has a relatively low success rate (less than 30%) and combats this by hunting collectively, thus maximising its success rate with the larger of the prey species. Here, both the lion and cheetah, use to their best advantage, individual physical attributes and adopt techniques in hunting that will give them the greatest success.

Hunting Behaviours
Hunting Technique
Prey Capture
Adaptation to Prey

Social Behaviours
Raising Young

The Cat as Predator - It has often been said of the 'Big Cats' - and of many of the smaller wild cats too - that they are the perfect predator, a killing machine, designed with every part specially tuned for the art of hunting and catching prey.

Fur and Markings - The fur of the cat serves two distinct purposes - firstly it protects the animal against the extremes of its environment and secondly serves as camouflage to make the cat less easy to spot against the background of its habitat.

The Range of the cat - In terms of the wild cat, the word 'range, can have two distinct meanings. Firstly the range of a wild cat species can be interpreted as its distribution or geographical spread across a large area - 'ranging' across countries or contents. Secondly the 'home range' of an individual wild cat is broadly its 'neighbourhood' - the area in which it lives.

The Social Cat - It is said that cats in the wild are solitary animals - whilst this is true for the majority of the wild cat species for most of the time - there are times when the cat can become a 'social' animal, sharing its daily life with others of its species.

A Matter of Breeding - One of the most important factors leading to a strong species population is that of genetic diversity - some small populations within the cat family however are not only under attack from the pressures of hunting and habitat loss, but also from inbreeding and hybridisation.

Cats in Captivity - For thousands of years man has caged and enclosed many of the wild cat species. To varying degrees cats have been seen as status symbols to the rich, caged exhibits of 'dangerous' exotic animals or reluctant performers in circus extravaganzas - today their place in captivity has a whole different meaning - survival.