As the name suggests, big cats are, well big cats! But which of all the cats is the biggest? And what was the biggest cat ever to stalk the Earth?
First of all let’s define what a big cat is. We’re not talking about Mr Tibbles, next door’s tabby who’s eaten too much Kitty-Nibbles! There are four species that are considered big cats and all belong to the genus Panthera. These are the tigers, lions, leopards and jaguars, however it really comes down to which is biggest, tiger or lion. With long, sharp, retractable claws, powerful jaws and dagger-like canine teeth these are formidable predators indeed.
The biggest of the big cats
Of all the living big cats it is the tiger that takes the crown. In particular it is the Siberian (or Amur) tiger that is the biggest tiger of them all. Weighing in at up to 3oo kg (660 lbs) and measuring up to 4m (13ft) in length this is one big cat. Just to put that in perspective, that’s about as long as a family car and the weight of three grown men.
There was an unconfirmed report of a male tiger weighing 384 kg (847 lb) back in 1950 and this sounds completely plausible given that captive Siberian tigers have been recorded weighing as much as 465 kg (1,025 lb). However, such captive tigers are considered overweight – i.e. they are fat cats.
Compared to the slightly smaller Bengal tiger it appears Siberian tigers are far less likely to attack with only a handful of cases reported over the years. This is in stark contrast to the 375,000 people killed by Bengal tigers over the centuries.
Whilst these figures may reflect Siberian tigers live in more remote regions, encounters also show them to be more reluctant to attack.
So, now we know the Siberian tiger (Panthera tigris altaica) is the biggest of all the big cats. Well actually no! The Siberian tiger is the biggest wild big cat. There is actually a big cat even larger than this but it only lives in captivity..
The biggest cat in the world
Yes, sounds like the start of a joke, but – What do you get if you cross a lion with a tiger? Well, actually you can get two things depending on the sex of the parents. We are interested in what you get when you cross a male lion with a female tiger, and that is a liger (wonder how they came up with that name?!).
The liger is bigger than any of the cats that occur naturally. They don’t happen in the wild because lions live in Africa and tigers live in Asia. That and they probably don’t get along that well in the wild either. In terms of appearance you get a fair mix; some faint stripes from the mother, a mini-mane from the father and growth promoting genes. What this results in is a animal weighing in at a massive 410 kg (904 lb) and this is lean weight.
In case you are wondering, a male tiger crossed with a female lion is known as a tigon. Again they inherit their appearance from both parent, however, they don’t grow particularly big.
The biggest big cat ever
I’ve saved the best til last. For this we are going to have to go back in time around 10,000 years to North America, where the most fearsome feline to ever walk the earth stalked its prey. In case you haven’t guessed we’re talking sabre-toothed tigers. Smilodon populator to be precise. If you can imagine a modern day tiger on steroids with dagger like canine teeth reaching nearly 30cm (1ft) in length then you are imagining Smilodon.
Whilst Smilodon was around the same height and length of modern day lions and tigers, it was more powerfully built. It is estimated that a large adult Smilodon could have weighed up to 500 kg (1100lbs).
This bear of a cat was a formidable hunter and would take on prey as large as bison, ground sloths and maybe even mammoths. If you think ground sloths don’t sound scary, think 1 ton bear with giant claws. The Smilodon‘s mode of attack was probably to wait in ambush for its prey and then use its strength to wrestle the prey and sink its huge teeth into the throat of its prey.
So fearsome was the Smilodon that it is thought to have caused the extinction of rival sabre-tooth, Thylacosmilus. Dominating all the Americas for over a million years Smilodon‘s time on earth overlapped that of humans. Given the reputation of modern day tigers as man-eaters these must have been scary days to be a human!