Fossil Record Life & Ecology Systematics Systematics

Carnivora: Life History & Ecology

Cheetah. Photo by Gerald and Buff Corsi, © 2003 California Academy of Sciences.

The name "Carnivora" means "meat-eaters," and most members of the Carnivora are meat-eating predators and scavengers. However, not all members of the Carnivora adhere to a strict meat diet: racoons, civets, jackals, badgers, skunks, and many bears supplement their diet with fruit, honey, seeds, roots, and/or other plant foods. Some members of the Carnivora aren't even meat-eaters at all: some small carnivores such as the tropical American coatis and kinkajou eat mostly fruit, and the panda feeds almost exclusively on bamboo. Remember that biological taxa are defined as a set of animals with a common ancestry, not all members of a taxon will necessarily show the most characteristic features of the taxon. In other words, not all Carnivora are carnivorous!

Some carnivores have reputations as hunters, chasing down and killing live prey. These include the lion, wolf, and the cheetah (right), which is the fastest of all running animals. Others, like the hyaenas and the dingo, have reputations as scavengers, feeding mostly on carrion. However, the distinction between hunters and scavengers is a false dichotomy. Most carnivores will scavenge if the opportunity presents itself, and "scavengers" like hyaenas actually hunt their own prey quite frequently.

Carnivore social organization varies and may be quite complex. Many are solitary, such as cougars and tigers. Others live in packs of various sizes, which may be dominated by males (as in lions and seals) or by females (as in hyenas). Both solitary and pack carnivores tend to be territorial, and scentmark the boundaries of their territories with urine and/or with secretions from special glands in the anal region. All carnivores have such glands; perhaps the carnivores most famous for their scent glands are the skunks, in which the glands also serve a defensive function.


  • Nowak, R.M. 1991. Walker's Mammals of the World. Volume II. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

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