Big cats are some of the most majestic and powerful animals on earth. As an animal enthusiast, I’ve always been fascinated by these powerful predators and wondered how they survive in the wild. After studying their behavior and habitat extensively, I’ve understood their capabilities and how they manage their environments. One of the most exciting skills of these animals is their ability to climb trees.
Yes, big cats can climb trees. In fact, all of the species under the genus Panthera share this ability. This genus includes lions, tigers, jaguars, leopards, and snow leopards. Other big cats, such as cougars and pumas, are also known to scale tree trunks and branches effortlessly.
The ability to climb trees is an interesting aspect of big cats. It’s a skill that gives these animals a distinct advantage over their prey and predators. Read more to find out which species of big cats can climb trees, how they do it, and why they have this ability.
What Classifies as a “Big Cat”?
Big cats are large felids, which are the same family as domestic cats. These animals are known for:
- their powerful bodies
- strong jaws that can crush bones
- retractable claws
- sharp teeth.
Despite this, big cats are also known to sometimes be domesticated, which I explain in this article.
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Technically, the species under the genus Panthera are considered big cats in the Felidae family. This genus consists of:
- snow leopards
Most of these creatures are apex predators in their respective habitats. They have large and strong bodies that they use to overpower other animals — even those larger than them.
There are also other large felids that don’t belong to the genus Panthera but are still considered “big cats.” These include cheetahs, cougars, lynxes, and pumas. They are not as powerful or as big as the Panthera species, but they are still formidable predators in their own right, possessing strong hunting skills and impressive speed and agility.
Meet the Tree-climbing Big Cats
Big cats have the impressive ability to climb trees. Each of these species has a slightly different technique for scaling tree trunks.
Leopards — also known as Panthera pardus — are arguably the best climbers among big cats. They use their strong legs and sharp claws to quickly and easily scale trees while using their long tails for balance. They are significantly lighter compared to other big cats, making it easier for them to climb. They can also jump from one branch to another with ease.
Leopards store their kills in tree branches, which keeps them safe from scavengers and other animals. While they are particularly strong and can carry twice their weight in tree branches, they are not considered apex predators. They also use trees to hide from other predators or keep an eye on their territory.
Cougars (Puma concolor) are also capable climbers. They aren’t as adept at climbing as leopards but can leap great distances in one bound. They also use their strong hind legs to push off from the ground, allowing them to reach higher branches and gain greater heights.
FUN FACT: A cougar can leap up to 45 feet. That’s about the length of 3 parked cars!
Cougars often use trees as a vantage point to observe their prey before pouncing on it from above. They typically don’t use trees as a resting spot or to hide from predators, but they can and will climb if needed.
Lynxes are incredibly agile and acrobatic climbers that can leap long distances and easily climb trees. They use their sharp claws and strong hind legs to climb quickly and efficiently. They can also jump from one branch to another in a single bound, covering large distances in record time.
Lynxes often hunt at night. They’re quite skilled and can take advantage of the elevated positions in trees to keep an eye on their prey or ambush unsuspecting victims.
Jaguars — or Panthera onca — are one of the largest and strongest big cats. Although they’re not as agile as other big cats, they can still climb trees easily due to their muscular bodies and large claws that give them a good grip.
Jaguars use trees to attack their tree-dwelling prey and as vantage points to ambush their targets on the ground. They also use tree branches as resting spots and are often found sleeping in trees.
5. Snow Leopards
Snow leopards, or Panthera uncia, are found in mountain regions and are well adapted to the cold climate. They are still a great mystery, as they’re relatively rare and great at hiding in their environment.
While they mostly remain on the ground, snow leopards are great tree climbers. They use their powerful chest muscles to climb and balance on narrow branches and rocky outcrops. They also use their strong legs and sharp claws to climb steep and slippery surfaces.
Other Tree-Climbing Big Cats
There are big cats that can climb trees but prefer to remain on the ground, such as the following.
Tigers (Panthera tigris) are the largest big cats. They are powerful but not as agile as leopards or cougars. They can still climb trees if needed, but their enormous size and weight make it difficult for them to move around quickly in branches.
FUN FACT: Tigers’ stripes, like fingerprints, are unique to each tiger – no two striped coats are the same!
Despite their size and weight, tigers are still brilliant hunters. They use trees to hide from prey or stalk their victims before launching an attack.
Lions — Panthera leo — are surprisingly good climbers. They can quickly scale trees and use the higher vantage points to observe their surroundings and search for potential prey.
Lions don’t climb trees to hide from predators or ambush prey. Instead, they use the elevated positions to survey their territory and keep an eye on other lions.
The Cheetah: The Big Cat That Can’t Climb Trees
The cheetah, or Acinonyx jubatus, is the fastest land animal in the world. Unfortunately, cheetahs are not adept tree climbers due to their weak claws and small body frame. Their bodies are built for speed and agility — not for scaling vertical surfaces.
FUN FACT: Cheetahs don’t roar (despite being ferocious big cats). Instead, they purr. I explain why big cats purr in my article here.
Cheetahs use their strength and speed to hunt on the ground. However, they have been known to climb trees in rare cases. This usually happens if the tree is low and slanted, and the cheetah can reach it without much effort.
Final Thoughts on Tree-Climbing Big Cats
Big cats are powerful and skilled climbers. Many of them use trees for hunting prey, hiding from predators, or surveying their surroundings. They all have different climbing techniques and can quickly adapt to their environment for survival.
Whether they’re stalking prey or relaxing, big cats have a wide range of skills that make them some of the most formidable predators in the animal kingdom.
Although they are all impressive climbers, not all big cats are adept at scaling trees. Regardless of whether or not they can climb trees, these big cats are still remarkable creatures that deserve admiration. Through careful study, we can continue to learn more about how they survive in the wild.