The 7 big cats are some of the most powerful predators on Earth, but much is misunderstood about their rise to the top of the food chain. It’s a survival story that began in the early ice ages, and reveals how these majestic creatures outlasted their deadly counterparts — including the mighty sabretooths. In this 3-part CuriosityStream original 4K series, travel to some of the most dangerous and remote locations on the planet — where big cats reign and nature is at its most savage. Each of the seven big cat species is closely profiled — with extraordinary, intimate natural behavior recorded with new high-tech night vision systems, super-slow-motion cameras, and cutting-edge computer-generated imagery of a bygone age that maps out a tantalizing trail of evidence to find out what happened. In this 3-million-year journey, experience the incredible and unexpected stories of the world's most charismatic predators: the big cats.
The lion is often called the king of beasts. This might once have been because of its magnificent physical stature. But now we know, at one time, the lion was the most widely distributed species of land predator since the age of the dinosaurs — found in Africa, Asia, the Americas and even the United Kingdom. Its body was designed for power and acceleration. With huge muscles on its haunches, the lion's attack is short and aggressive, with a fast rush and a final leap. And lions are unique among the big cats in that they are the most social. They can live in large prides of up to 35, sharing the rearing of cubs, hunting and kills, and defense against other predators.
The tiger is the largest of the big cat species and the only one with stripes, a benefit for camouflage in long grasses. But they are at home in habitats ranging from dry grassland to swamps and rainforests. The tiger is solitary and a powerful predator, usually hunting at night, preying on a variety of large animals including deer and wild pigs. But the tiger only attacks when it has absolute surprise in its favor. They need to be sufficiently strong to overcome their prey with the minimum of struggle and the shortest chase possible. And when tigers catch something, they eat most of it, including some of the internal organs, stomach contents as well as skin and bone.
The cheetah defies many of the rules of the big cats — it is a day hunter and not a robust fighter. But it is, by far, the fastest mammal on Earth. Cheetahs use their slender, long-legged body and aerodynamics efficiently to maximize their speed. The first stage of a hunt is to identify suitable prey from a distance, using their keen eyesight. And then, within a hundred yards, the cheetah unleashes her most spectacular weapon — a missile-like sprint. Her back arches more than any other cat to give her a huge stride of over 20 feet at full speed… which can be as fast as 70 miles an hour.
The puma is secretive and elusive... crucial qualities in its survival story. Unable to compete on the plains, the first puma survived by hiding, using cover, stealth and its wits to survive. And that has worked well. Although their population has shrunk dramatically over the last few centuries, the puma is still the most widespread big cat in the Americas, with a wider habitat tolerance of any other species, managing to find a good living in the frozen forests of the north, the searing deserts in north and south, and the steaming rainforests of the Amazon basin. The puma is solitary and known for its ability to bring down large prey, including elk and moose.
The leopard remains the most numerous of all the big cats. And it has changed its behavior many times over as the world’s natural systems underwent repeated ice ages, as animals disappeared, and as the impact of humans gradually became more and more prevalent. The leopard has managed to survive in deserts, forests, mountains and Siberian snows. The human-dominated world is arguably the most challenging yet. Like the puma, the leopard has made its career by keeping a low profile. And it is an agile climber; it can hunt from the trees and often drags its kill into the branches to hide it from other predators.
The snow leopard is a master of stealth. With its acute senses combined with incredible grace and balance, it has evolved to survive some of the harshest conditions on Earth in the cold, high mountains. The snow leopard’s powerful build allows it to scale steep slopes in the rocky terrain, and it muscular haunches and explosive acceleration give it the ability to leap six times the length of its body. Its coat, made up of long hairs and a dense, woolly underfur, is a thick protection from the cold. And its fur-lined tail, longer than other big cats, can be wrapped around their bodies for warmth.
The jaguar was once an international traveler and explorer of the world. But today, the jaguar is found only in the southern half of the Americas. Jaguars are stocky and muscular, with large rosettes covering their tawny coat. It is a solitary hunter, with sharp teeth and the most powerful bite of all the big cats, usually killing its prey with one crushing bite to the skull. And unlike most big cats, the jaguar loves the water. It often swims, bathes, and even hunts for fish in streams and pools. It even has the strength and swimming power to leap into water after prey and carry a large kill while swimming to shore.
Martin Dohrn is founder and director of the award-winning production company, Ammonite Films. He has produced landmark natural history television programs for over 20 years. Dohrn’s films have won several prestigious awards including an Emmy® for Cinematography and the Grand Helix Award at the Jackson Hole Science Media Awards. Leading the field in natural history low-light filming and macrophotography, Dohrn and the team at Ammonite have developed highly-specialized and innovative equipment including image-intensified night vision cameras and motion control systems, to gain unique insight into the natural world and showcase images from some of the darkest locations on Earth.
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