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What Are Carnivores? - Examples, Definition & Quiz

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Margaret Cunningham

This lesson will focus on what carnivores are and what characteristics make them effective hunters and consumers. This lesson will also discuss the importance of these predators.

We also recommend watching What Is Composting? - Definition and Examples and What Is Industrial Ecology? - Definition and Examples

Introduction and Definition

What immediately springs to mind when you think of predators and hunters in the wild? Is it big-teethed, fast-moving creatures such as lions, tigers and bears? These types of predators are called carnivores. They are animals that eat other animals as their main source of nutrition and are often physically designed to effectively hunt, capture and consume their prey.

In the United States, there are many species of carnivores including mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, red foxes, gray wolves, fishers, hawks, eagles and wolverines. In other regions of the world, commonly recognized carnivores also include lions, tigers, hyenas, and cheetahs. The largest land carnivore is the polar bear and the largest aquatic carnivore is the Southern elephant seal.

The Largest Carnivores: Polar Bear (left) and Southern Elephant Seal (right)
seal and polar bear

Carnivores don't always have to be large to capture their prey, however. One very interesting, medium-size carnivore is the honey badger. These furry mammals eat mainly mice, squirrels and gophers. They look relatively harmless at first glance, but if you were to corner a honey badger, you would see its aggressive side and understand first hand why these animals are often considered the meanest animal on Earth!

Honey Badger
honey badger

Physical Adaptations

Carnivores have several physical adaptations that enable them to be effective hunters and consumers. Carnivores have eyes that are specially designed for hunting. The eyes of a carnivore are located in the front of their head, which makes it possible for them to have depth perception. Depth perception is important to hunting because it enables the carnivore to determine how far away a prey is and also how fast the prey is moving.

Mountain Lion with Forward Facing Eyes
Mountain Lion eyes

Another major adaptation that carnivores have developed is an effective mouth, with a strong jaw and well-designed teeth. Most carnivores have very powerful jaws, which make it possible for them to bite and hold large, strong prey. This adaptation makes carnivores more successful hunters because they are more likely to capture and kill their prey.

Unlike herbivores, also known as plant eaters, who have teeth that are designed for chewing vegetation, carnivores have more specialized teeth that are designed for ripping meat from their prey. Carnivores have sharp incisors and canines for biting and tearing apart meat. The premolars and molars of carnivores are mainly for chewing, but are also sharper than the premolars and molars found in herbivores.

Comparison of Carnivore and Herbivore Teeth
Teeth

Behavior

Carnivores are often very secretive animals and are rarely seen by people. Some carnivores are also solitary, meaning that they travel alone. These types of animals are rarely seen by members of their own species. Although carnivores are secretive and can be solitary, at times they do need to communicate with potential mates or other competitors. One way that some carnivores communicate is through vocalizations, such as howling. Another way is by scent marks or leaving scat, which is fecal matter. Carnivores rub against trees to leave their scent behind or drop their scat in trails or rocks to leave a message to other animals.

Reintroduction

Over the years, carnivores have been hunted at high rates by humans. Humans often hunt carnivores due to the large amount of meat they supply or because they want to protect themselves, their land or their animals from damage by the carnivore. As a result of hunting, some carnivore populations have decreased drastically, and this can have a large impact on the other species in the environment.

Carnivores are responsible for keeping other species populations within a healthy range. When carnivores are removed from an ecosystem, prey species are able to overpopulate. This overpopulation of prey species can disturb the population of other species and make the whole ecosystem unbalanced.

Due to the important role that carnivores play in the ecosystem, there have been efforts to reintroduce these animals to their natural environments. Recently in the United States, there have been several reintroduction plans for carnivores. Wolves have been reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park, where they had not been seen in many years. Also, in Washington, Olympic fishers, medium-sized mammals in the weasel family, have been reintroduced after this specific population was listed as endangered.

Summary

Carnivores are a type of predator that survives by eating the meat of other animals. These predators are specially designed to hunt, kill and consume their prey due to their physical and behavioral adaptations. Carnivores are also very important species in an ecosystem because they keep other animal populations in control and maintain a balanced environment.

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