10 Facts About Carnivores

An Interesting Look at the Commonalities and Differences of Meat Eaters

Wolf walking in the snow
Wolves are considered opportunistic feeders. They’ll take down a deer or elk, but they’ll also hunt smaller rodents and livestock, and scavenge on dead animals too.

Andy Skillen Photography / Getty Images

Carnivores—by which we mean, for the purposes of this article, meat-eating mammals—are some of the most feared animals on Earth. These predators come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from two-ounce weasels to half-ton bears, and they eat everything from birds, fish, and reptiles to each other. 

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Carnivores Can Be Divided Into Two Basic Groups

A hyena walking
Hyenas are known scavengers, but they're good hunters too.

Daniel Fafard (Dreamdan)/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 1.0

It may not be much help when you're trying to make sense of bears and hyenas, but there are two suborders of the order of Carnivora (the carnivores)—Caniformia and Feliformia. As you may already have guessed, Caniformia includes dogs, foxes, and wolves, but it's also home to animals as diverse as skunks, seals, and raccoons. Feliformia includes lions, tigers, and house cats but also animals you might not think are all that closely related to felines, such as hyenas and mongooses. (There used to be a third carnivore suborder, Pinnipedia, but these marine mammals have since been subsumed under the Caniformia.)

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There Are 15 Basic Carnivore Families

Walrus laying on ice
The walrus prefers feasting on shellfish but will scavenge on seal carcasses.

Captain Budd Christman, NOAA Corps / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

The canid and felid carnivores are divided into 15 families. The canids include Canidae (wolves, dogs, and foxes), Mustelidae (weasels, badgers, and otters), Ursidae (bears), Mephitidae (skunks), Procyonidae (raccoons), Otariidae (earless seals), Phocidae (eared seals), Ailuridae (red pandas), and Odobenidae (walruses). The felids include Felidae (lions, tigers, and cats), Hyaenidae (hyenas), Herpestidae (mongooses), Viverridae (civets), Prionodontidae (Asiatic linsangs), and Eupleridae (small mammals of Madagascar).

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Not All Carnivores Are Devoted Meat Eaters

Red panda on the ground
The bulk of the red panda's diet comes from plants, but on occasion, it will switch things up and dine on insects, mice, rats, and bird's eggs.

kiszon pascal / Getty Images

It may seem strange, considering that their name literally means "meat eater," but carnivores have a wide range of diets. On one end of the scale are the cats of family Felidae, which are "hypercarnivorous," obtaining nearly all of their calories from fresh meat (or, in the case of house cats, tin cans). On the other end of the scale are outliers like red pandas and raccoons, which eat small amounts of meat (in the form of bugs and lizards) but spend the rest of their time foraging for tasty vegetation. There is even one exclusively vegetarian "carnivore," the Asian palm civet of family Viverridae.

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Carnivores Can Only Move Their Jaws up and Down

Dog looking into the wind
A dog has four types of teeth for different functions: incisors (tearing), canines (puncturing and holding), premolars (shearing), and molars (grinding and chewing).

Michael Sugrue / Getty Images

When you watch a dog or cat eat, you may be intrigued (or vaguely repulsed) by the sloppy, chomping, up-and-down motion of its jaws. You can attribute this to the characteristic shape of the carnivoran skull: The jaws are positioned, and the muscles are attached, in such a way as to disallow side-by-side movement. One positive thing about the arrangement of the carnivoran skull is that it allows for a larger brain than other mammals, which is why cats, dogs, and bears, as a whole, tend to be much smarter than goats, horses, and hippos.

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All Carnivores Descend From a Common Ancestor

Illustration of a Miacis skull
An illustration of the skull of an extinct Miacis, an early carnivore that had a dog-like form.

Coluberssymbol / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

As far as paleontologists can tell, all carnivores alive today—ranging from cats and dogs to bears and hyenas—are ultimately descended from Miacis, a small mammal that lived in western Europe about 55 million years ago, only 10 million years after the dinosaurs had gone extinct. There were mammals before Miacis—these animals evolved from therapsid reptiles during the late Triassic period—but the tree-dwelling Miacis was the first to be equipped with the characteristic teeth and jaws of carnivorans, and served as a blueprint for later carnivoran evolution.

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Carnivores Have Relatively Simple Digestive Systems

Hippo in a zoo
Hippos eat a lot of grass, but even in zoos, they have been known to eat other animals and even their own kind.

Micha L. Rieser / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

As a general rule, plants are much more difficult to break down and digest than fresh meat—which is why the guts of horses, hippos, and elks are packed with yards upon yards of intestines, and often more than one stomach (as in ruminant animals like cows). By contrast, carnivores have relatively simple digestive systems with shorter, more compact intestines and a higher stomach-volume to intestine-volume ratio. (This explains why your house cat throws up after eating grass; its digestive system simply isn't equipped to process the fibrous proteins of plants.) 

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Carnivores Are the World's Most Efficient Predators

A cheetah running
The wild cheetah enjoys hunting and feasting on gazelles, eating about 6.2 pounds of meat per day.

Gallo Images / Heinrich van den Berg / Getty Images

You can make a case for sharks and eagles, of course, but pound-for-pound, carnivores may be the most dangerous predators on Earth. The crushing jaws of dogs and wolves, the blazing speed and retractable claws of tigers and cheetahs, and the muscular arms of black bears are the culmination of millions of years of evolution, during which a single missed meal could spell the difference between survival and death. In addition to their bigger brains, carnivores are also equipped with exceptionally sharp senses of sight, sound, and smell, which make them all the more dangerous when pursuing prey.

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Some Carnivores Are More Social Than Others

A lion in the wild
The average adult lion will kill about 15 large animals a year, but half their food is from scavenging.

Schuyler Shepherd (Unununium272) / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.5

Carnivores exhibit a wide range of social behavior, and nowhere are the differences more pronounced than between the two most familiar carnivore families, felids, and canids. Dogs and wolves are intensely social animals, usually hunting and living in packs, while most big cats tend to be solitary, forming small family units only when necessary (as in the pride of lions). In case you're wondering why it's so easy to train your dog, while your cat won't even show the courtesy to respond to its name, that's because canines are hard-wired by evolution to follow the lead of the pack alpha, while tabbies simply couldn't care less.

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Carnivores Communicate in a Wide Variety of Ways

A dog sleeping on the ground
In a 24-hour period, the average dog sleeps about 12 to 14 hours, but they're typically on alert for anything involving food.

High Contrast / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

Compared to herbivorous mammals like deer and horses, carnivores are some of the loudest animals on Earth. The barks of dogs and wolves, the roars of big cats, the grumbles of bears, and the eerily laugh-like hooting of hyenas are all different means of asserting dominance, initiating courtship, or warning others of danger. Carnivores can also communicate nonverbally: via scent (urinating on trees, emitting foul scents from anal glands) or via body language (entire treatises have been written about the aggressive and submissive postures adopted by dogs, wolves, and hyenas in different social situations).

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Today's Carnivores Aren't Much Smaller Than They Used to Be

Southern elephant seal
Fish and squid are always on the menu for the southern elephant seal, and they're able to feast from the surface all the way down to 5,000 feet or more. They are able to dive that far down by shutting off blood supply to certain parts of their body.

Justin Mertens / Getty Images

Back in the Pleistocene epoch, about a million years ago, practically every mammal on Earth had a comically huge ancestor in its family tree—witness the two-ton prehistoric armadillo Glyptodon. But this rule doesn't apply to carnivores, many of which (like the saber-toothed tiger and the dire wolf) were fairly bulky but not significantly bigger than their modern descendants. Today, the largest carnivore on Earth is the southern elephant seal, the males of which can attain weights of over five tons; the smallest is the appropriately named least weasel, which tips the scales at less than half a pound.

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Strauss, Bob. "10 Facts About Carnivores." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/facts-about-carnivores-4110493. Strauss, Bob. (2023, April 5). 10 Facts About Carnivores. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/facts-about-carnivores-4110493 Strauss, Bob. "10 Facts About Carnivores." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/facts-about-carnivores-4110493 (accessed May 30, 2023).