The 15 Basic Carnivore Families

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Can You Identify the 15 Types of Carnivores?

sun bear
A sun bear. Getty Images

Carnivores—by which we mean, for the purposes of this article, meat-eating mammals—come in all shapes and sizes. On the following slides, you'll learn about the 15 basic groups, or families, of carnivores, ranging from the familiar (dogs and cats) to the more exotic (kinkajous and linsangs).

02
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Dogs, Wolves and Foxes (Family Canidae)

arctic wolf
The Arctic Wolf. Getty Images

As you already know if you own a golden retriever or a labradoodle, canids are characterized by their long legs, bushy tails, and narrow muzzles, not to mention their powerful teeth and jaws suited (in some species) for crushing bone and gristle. Dogs (Canis familiaris) are by far the most common canid species, but this family also includes wolves, foxes, jackals and dingoes. These loyal carnivores have a deep evolutionary history, tracing their heritage all the way back to the middle Cenozoic Era (see 40 Million Years of Dog Evolution).

03
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Lions, Tigers, and Other Cats (Family Felidae)

siberian tiger
The Siberian Tiger. Wikimedia Commons

Usually the first animals that spring to mind when people say the word "carnivore," lions, tigers, pumas, cougars, panthers, and house cats are all intimately related members of the Felidae family. Felids are characterized by their slender builds, sharp teeth, ability to climb trees, and mostly solitary habits (unlike canids, which tend to congregate in social groups, cats prefer to hunt alone). Unlike most other meat-eating mammals, cats are "hypercarnivorous," meaning they obtain all or most of their nutrition from prey animals (even tabbies can be considered hypercarnivores, since soft cat food and kibble is made of meat).

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Bears (Family Ursidae)

brown bear
The Brown Bear. Getty Images

There are only eight species of bears alive today, but these carnivores have had an outsize impact on human society: everyone knows about efforts to preserve the polar bear and the panda bear, and it's always news when a brown bear or grizzly mauls an overly confident party of campers. Bears are characterized by their doglike snouts, shaggy hair, plantigrade postures (that is, they walk on the soles rather than the toes of their feet), and unnerving habit of rearing up on their hinds legs when threatened. See 10 Facts About Bears 

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Hyenas and Aardwolves (Order Hyaenidae)

spotted hyena
A spotted hyena. Getty Images

Despite their superficial resemblance, these carnivores are most closely related not to dog-like canids (slide #2), but to cat-like felids (slide #3). There are only three extant hyena species—the spotted hyena, the brown hyena, and the striped hyena—and they vary widely in their behavior; for example, striped hyenas scavenge the carcasses of other predators, while spotted hyenas prefer to kill their own food. The Hyaenidae family also includes the little-known aardwolf, a small, insect-eating mammal with a long, sticky tongue.

06
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Weasels, Badgers and Otters (Family Mustelidae)

badger
A badger. Getty Images

The largest family of carnivorous mammals, comprising nearly 60 species, mustelids include animals as diverse as weasels, badgers, ferrets, and wolverines. Roughly speaking, mustelids are moderately sized (the largest member of this family, the sea otter, only weighs 100 pounds); possess short ears and short legs; and are equipped with scent glands in their behinds, which they use to mark their territory and signal sexual availability. The fur of some mustelids is especially soft and luxurious; innumerable garments have been manufactured from the hides of minks, ermines, sables and stoats.

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Skunks (Family Mephitidae)

striped skunk
A striped skunk. Getty Images

Mustelids (see previous slide) aren't the only carnivorous mammals to be equipped with scent glands; the same applies, with an order of magnitude greater efficiency, to the skunks of family Mephitidae. The dozen extant skunk species all use their scent glands to defend themselves against predators, such as bears and wolves, which have learned to steer clear of these otherwise inoffensive-looking animals. Oddly enough, even though they're classified as carnivores, skunks are mostly omnivorous, feasting in equal measure on worms, mice and lizards and nuts, roots and berries.

08
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Raccoons, Coatis and Kinkajous (Family Procyonidae)

raccoon
A raccoon. Getty Images

A bit like a cross between the bears of slide #4 and the mustelids of slide #7, raccoons and other procyonids (including coatis, kinkajous and ringtails) are small, long-snouted carnivores with distinctive facial markings. As a whole, raccoons may be the least respected carnivorous mammals on the face of the earth: they have a habit of raiding garbage cans, and they're prone to infection with rabies, which can be communicated to an unlucky human with a single bite. Procyonids may be the least carnivorous of all carnivores; these mammals are mostly omnivorous, and have pretty much lost the dental adaptations required for devoted meat eating.

09
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Earless Seals (Family Phocidae)

earless seal
An earless seal. Wikimedia Commons

The 15 or so species of earless seals, also known as true seals, are well-adapted to a marine lifestyle: these sleek, streamlined carnivores lack external ears, the females have retractable nipples, and the males have internal testicles and a penis that's pulled into the body when not in use. Although true seals spend most of the time at sea, and can swim for extended periods of time underwater, they return to dry land or pack ice to give birth; these mammals communicate by grunting and slapping their flippers, unlike their close cousins, the eared seals of family Otariideae (see next slide).

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Eared Seals (Family Otariidae)

sea lion
A sea lion. Wikimedia Commons

Comprised of eight species of fur seals and an equal number of sea lions, eared seals, as their name implies, can be distinguished by their small external ear flaps—unlike the earless seals of family Phocidae (see previous slide). Eared seals are more suited for terrestrial life than their earless relatives, using their powerful front flippers to propel themselves over dry land or pack ice, but, oddly enough, they tend to be faster and more maneuverable than phocids when in the water. Eared seals are also the most sexually dimorphic mammals in the animal kingdom; male fur seals and sea lions can weigh up to six times as much as females.

11
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Mongooses and Meerkats (Family Herpestidae)

meerkat
A meerkat. Getty Images

In many respects indistinguishable from the weasels, badgers and otters of family Mustelidae (see slide #6), mongooses have achieved fame thanks to a unique evolutionary weapon: these cat-sized carnivores are almost completely immune to snake venom. You might infer from this that mongooses like to kill and eat snakes, but in fact this is a purely defensive adaptation, meant to keep pesky snakes at bay while the mongooses pursue their preferred diet of birds, insects and rodents. The Herpestidae family also includes meerkats, which have long been famous ever since their appearance in The Lion King.

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Civets and Genets (Family Viverridae)

palm civet
A palm civet. Getty Images

Superficially resembling weasels and raccoons, civets and genets are small, nimble, pointy-snouted mammals indigenous to Africa, southern Europe, and southeast Asia. What's most important about these animals is that they're extremely "basal," or undeveloped, compared to other "feliform" mammals like cats, hyenas and mongooses, clearly branching off millions of years ago from a low point of the carnivore family tree. Unusually for a supposed carnivore, at least one viverrid species (the palm civet) pursues a mostly vegetarian diet, while most other civets and genets are omnivorous.

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Walruses (Family Odobenidae)

walrus
A walrus. Getty Images

The carnivore family Odobenidae comprises exactly one species, Odobenus rosmarus, better known as the walrus. (There are, however, three Odobenus subspecies: the Atlantic walrus, O. rosmaris rosmaris; the Pacific walrus, O. rosmaris divergens, and a walrus of the Arctic Ocean, O. rosmaris laptevi.) Closely related to both earless and eared seals (see slides #9 and #10), walruses can weigh up to two tons, and are equipped with huge tusks surrounded by bushy whiskers; their favorite foods are bivalve mollusks, though they have also been known to eat shrimp, crabs, sea cucumbers, and even their fellow seals.

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Red Pandas (Family Ailuridae)

red panda
A red panda. Getty Images

The panda no one ever talks about, the red panda (Ailurus fulgens) is an uncannily raccoon-like mammal of southwestern China and the eastern Himalayan Mountains, complete with a bushy, striped tail and prominent markings along its eyes and snout. Unusually for a member of the carnivore family, this tree-dwelling mammal mostly eats bamboo, but has been known to supplement its diet with eggs, birds, and various insects. There are believed to be less than 10,000 red pandas in the world today, and even though it is a protected species, its numbers continue to dwindle.

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Linsangs (Family Prionodontidae)

linsang
An Asiatic linsang. Wikimedia Commons

In case you've never been to Indonesia or the Bay of Bengal, linsangs are slender, foot-long, weasel-like creatures with distinctive markings on their coats: head-to-tail bands with tabby-like tail rigs on the banded linsang (Prionodon linsang), and leopard-like spots on the spotted linsang (Prionodon pardicolor). Both of these linsang species live exclusively in southeast Asia; analysis of their DNA has pegged them as a "sister group" to the Felidae (slide #3) that diverged from the main evolutionary trunk millions of years ago.

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Fossas and Falanoucs (Family Eupleridae)

fossa
A fossa. Wikimedia Commons

Probably the most obscure animals in this slideshow, fossas, falanoucs, and a half-dozen species confusingly referred to as "mongooses" comprise the carnivore family Eupleridae, which is restricted to the Indian ocean island of Madagascar. Genetic analysis has shown that the 10 extant species of euplerids, sometimes known as Malagasy mongooses, derive from a true mongoose ancestor that accidentally rafted over to this island during the middle Cenozoic Era, about 20 million years ago. Like much of the wildlife of Madagascar, many euplerids are severely endangered by the encroachment of human civilization.

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Strauss, Bob. "The 15 Basic Carnivore Families." ThoughtCo, Oct. 12, 2017, thoughtco.com/basic-carnivore-families-4111373. Strauss, Bob. (2017, October 12). The 15 Basic Carnivore Families. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/basic-carnivore-families-4111373 Strauss, Bob. "The 15 Basic Carnivore Families." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/basic-carnivore-families-4111373 (accessed January 23, 2018).