Why can only big cats roar?

What makes lions, tigers, leopards and jaguars different from other cats? Why can they roar while every other cat can only purr? Read on to find out!

https://www.discoverwildlife.com/animal-facts/mammals/why-do-tigers-have-stripes/

There are four big cats that can roar: lion, tiger, leopard and jaguar – all of which belong to the genus Panthera.

Advertisement

In these species, the epihyal bone, part of the voice box, is replaced by a ligament. This can be stretched, creating a larger sound-producing passage and thus a wider range of pitch. The more the ligament extends, the lower the sound generated when air passes across the vocal cords. In addition, the cords are large, unbroken and fleshy, which produces deeper sounds.

Roaring tiger (Panthera tigris)
Roaring tiger. © SKapl/Getty

Why can’t cheetahs roar?

The bones of the cheetah’s voice box form a fixed structure, with divided vocal cords that vibrate with both in and out breaths. This structure is the same for all the ‘small’ cats. While this design enables these cats to purr continuously, it limits the range of other sounds and prevents them from being able to roar.

Just because cheetahs are relatively large, that doesn’t mean they can roar – they still have small-cat anatomy despite their size, and it’s exactly the same for pumas/mountain lions.

Do big cats purr?

Big cats don’t purr. Purring and roaring are mutually exclusive, so lions, tigers, leopards and jaguars are all incapable of purring, while every other cat can purr but not roar.

Leopard roar
A growling or roaring leopard. © Chingting Huang/Getty

Are there any exceptions?

Interestingly, the snow leopard – also a member of Panthera along with lions etc – cannot roar. Its vocal cords lack an all-important layer of fatty, elasticated tissue, which, in other big cats, gives the vocalisations an uneven rumble that emerges as a roar. Some scientists therefore argue that the snow leopard deserves its own genus: Uncia.

Close-up of a roaring jaguar (panthera onca) running towards viewer
Roaring jaguar. © Freder/Getty

Everyone loves big cats, and we’ve got loads of features to keep you interested. Take a look at these ones for a start!

Why do big cats usually stalk and pounce?

Which big cat has the strongest bite?

Could there really be big cats in the British countryside?

Photo © Freder/Getty

Close up of a tiger's eyes (Panthera tigris)
Advertisement

Do you have a wildlife question you’d like answered? Email your question to wildquestions@immediate.co.uk or post it to Q&A, BBC Wildlife Magazine, Immediate Media Company, 2nd Floor, Tower House, Fairfax Street, Bristol, BS1 3BN