Carnivora is an amazing group of animals that share a special connection with humans. They include cats, dogs, bears, seals, mustelids and a number of other animals that share a common ancestor who had evolved to eat animals. They share a number of key physical features; the most obvious being enlarged canine teeth that are beneficial when trying to kill and consume animals.

A couple of these animals have an omnivorous diet and the strange exception is the giant panda which feeds entirely on bamboo plants. Most carnivorans have excellent senses of smell, sight and hearing and many are physically impressive animals such as the large cats, wolves and bears.

The order Carnivora is separated into two suborders: Feliformia (cats, hyaenas, mongoose, meerkats, civets, genets) and Caniformia (dogs, wolves, bears, mustelids, seals). All up there is around 280 living species in the order Carnivora with around 160 in the Caniform clade and the remaining 120 species in the suborder Feliformia.


Cats are amazing predators and often hunt by stealthily approaching their prey and attacking with a quick burst of speed. Some cats can kill prey that is much larger than themselves. There are 40 living species of cats that are found naturally in most parts of the world; the major exceptions being Australia and Antarctica.

Cats are highly specialized hunters. They have shortened mouths which increases the strength of their bites, strong solid limbs and retractable recurved claws. They eat a wide variety of both vertebrate and invertebrate animals, the largest being the African buffalo (Syncerus caffer) which can weigh up to 900 kg (2000 lbs). The largest cat is a tiger (Panthera tigris) which can weigh as much as 280 kg (600 lbs).


The four species of living hyenas are found in Africa, the Middle East and India. Instead of being specialized hunters, hyenas are mostly scavengers and feed primarily on the decaying meat of dead animals.

Hyenas will often scavenge on the kills of large cats and in the case of cheetahs, they are able to steal their kill by forcing the cheetah to leave. Packs of hyenas have also been observed hunting in groups of up to 30 animals, hunting wildebeest and other ungulates. They are social animals and live in large ‘clans’ and mark their territory using scent marks.


There is currently 33 species of mongoose from 14 different genera which includes meerkats and kusimanses. They are found in Africa, southeast Europe, the Middle East, India and tropical parts of Asia. They are relatively small carnivorans with the largest species growing to around 5 kg (12 lbs). Insects are their primary food source although they eat a range of foods including small vertebrates, eggs and fruit.

Dogs, wolves and foxes

Wolves, foxes, jackals and dogs belong to one family of carnivorans called Canidae. There is a total of 35 different species from 13 genera and fossil records date Canids living on Earth for at least the last 35 million years.

Canids are found in all parts of the world, except Antarctica, and in a wide range of environments from the arctic to hot arid deserts. They range in size from 1-80 kg (2-175 lbs) and most are omnivorous. Wolves, dogs and foxes all have a brilliant sense of smell due to their enlarged noses and the structure of their nose bones. Foxes tend to be solitary hunters while wolves hunt in packs.


Bears are the largest animals in the order Carnivora and are found in Europe, Asia, the Americas and in the Atlas Mountains of Africa. They are found in a range of habitats, similar to wolves and foxes, living in both arctic and tropical climates.

There are eight identified species of bears and a number of subspecies. Within the brown bear species (Ursus arctos) there are 16 subspecies including the grizzly bear of North America and the Atlas bear of the African Atlas Mountains.

Many bears that live in cold climates will spend the winter months in caves or dens and live off their fat reserves until spring arrives. Polar bears are the largest species of bear, the largest ever recorded weight of a male polar bear was a whopping 2,209 lbs or 1002 kg!

Seals and walruses

Eared seals, earless seals, sea lions and walruses form three families of marine carnivorans which can be clumped together in a suborder called Pinnipedia. They are found on the coastlines in many parts of the world, typically in areas with cooler water.

All pinnipeds are poor movers on land but are well adapted to life in water. They are larger than their land-based relatives which is important when it comes to conserving body heat in the water; they also have thick layers of blubber and dense fur to insulate themselves from the cold.

Pinnipeds have smooth body shapes which makes them extremely streamlined for movement through the water and they are able to swim at impressive speeds. The earless seals or ‘true’ seals are far more specialized for life in the water but less agile on land than the eared seals and sea lions.

All pinniped limbs have been modified into two sets of flippers. Eared seals and walruses have the ability to support their own weight on their front flippers and use their hind flippers to help with moving around on land whereas true seals cannot. Walruses are easily distinguished from all other pinnipeds by the modification of their canines into large tusks.


The mustelid family includes a whole range of well-known carnivoran species. These include animals such as the raccoon, skunks, stoats, ferrets, weasels, badgers, otters and the red panda. They are found all around the world except in Australia, Antarctica and other isolated islands. Aside from otters who are semi-aquatic, the remaining mustelid species are found in land-based habitats, although many species are strong swimmers.

Mustelids are relatively small animals for the order Carnivora and the majority of species are less than 10 kg (22 lbs); the largest species is the sea otter (Enhydra lutris) which can weigh up to 45 kg (100 lbs). Although many species exhibit carnivorous diets, a large number of species eat a wide range of plant foods such as a variety of fruit, vegetables, flowers, leaves and seeds.

Interesting facts

  • The cheetah is the fastest land animal and has been recorded at speeds of up to 98 km/h or 61 mph.
  • Although they are surrounded by ice and snow, polar bears have a lack of accessible drinking water and to solve the problem they metabolize fats in their body into water. By eating almost purely seal blubber and avoiding protein they have a high fat / low protein diet that reduces their need to urinate which also helps to conserve water.
  • Elephant seals are the largest of the carnivoran species and can reach weights of up to 3.5 tonnes.
  • Seals are amazing divers and certain species have been recorded to have dived to depths of 1500 m, for up to 90 minutes and can travel as far as 5 km (3 miles) on one breath.

Last edited: 14 December 2015

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