Carnivorous animals – Concept, types and characteristics

We explain what are the carnivores, how are they classified and how they differ from herbivores and omnivores.

carnivorous animals great white shark
Carnivores are consumers feeding on other animals.

What are carnivorous animals?

Carnivorous animals or zoophagi are animals whose diet consists exclusively of organic matter from other animals. They are heterotrophic organisms. In this classification we consider both, predatory animals and scavengers.

Although the mere mention of the word carnivore makes us think of the great African or Asian predators (if not the prehistoric ones, such as certain species of dinosaurs), in reality there is a whole bunch of animals that get their energy feeding on other animals.

We are not talking about a diet based on red meat or other mammals’ flesh, but the meat of another animal in a general sense of the word. There are even plants that complement their autotrophic nutrition with insects, using a diverse set of digestion methods (the so-called carnivorous plants).

Carnivorism emerged as a method of nutrition since primitive times, as part of the evolutionary competition for life. It was an important engine of natural selection, as prey and predators competed for millions of years to adapt to each other’s strategies.

Examples of carnivorous animals

carnivorous tiger huntingBig cats like tigers and lions are examples of predatory carnivores.

Some examples of carnivorous animals are:

  • The big felids Africans and Asians: tigers, lions, jaguars, pumas, lynxes, and other scavengers that live next to them, such as hyenas or vultures.
  • The fearsome marine predators: sharks, barracudas, killer whales, moray eels, etc.
  • Arachnids like scorpions, centipedes and spiders, and insects like the praying mantis.
  • Prey birds such as owls, barn owls, hawks, and eagles, as well as other scavengers such as vultures and condors.
  • Wild canids like foxes, coyotes, wolves and wild dogs.
  • Piscivorous birds like pelicans, gannets or cormorants.

Characteristics of carnivorous animals

carnivorous animals snake fangsMany carnivores have modified organs, like the fangs of snakes.

Carnivorous animals can have very different characteristics, since in each case they are adapted to the habitat in which they live and to the hunting strategies that allow them to consume the meat of other animals. For instance, large land carnivores tend to have sharp teeth to tear the meat, or curved to hold the prey and prevent it from escaping.

In some cases, they also have sharp claws, and in others with modified organs, such as the teeth of poisonous snakes, capable of inoculating their prey with a kind of modified digestive enzymes that produce different types of paralysis or death.

Many carnivores are also skilled hunters, endowed with great instincts and mechanisms to stalk, follow, chase or surprise their prey, thus maximizing their chances of feeding. Many have large jaws for biting, like sharks.

In the case of insects, crustaceans and arachnids have strong claws or appendages to hold prey, break their defenses or extract them from their hiding places. The same can be done by carnivorous birds with their strong, sharp claws and curved beaks, ideal for holding and tearing the outer layers of the animal and accessing the softer and more nutritious meat.

There are also marine carnivores such as the blue whale that use water filtering methods to keep the large portions of crustaceans and microorganisms that they feed on. To get the most out of their prey, they have internal beards and huge mouths.

Carnivores tend to have simpler and more direct digestive systems, at least in comparison with herbivores, since the latter must digest plant organic matter in different stages, while animal meat is much simpler to digest.

Types of carnivorous animals

There are two possible classifications of carnivorous animals. The first takes care of the type of the meat they eat, or the type of animals they prefer to consume. We could distinguish:

  • Strict carnivores are those who eat meat from other vertebrate animals, such as mammals, birds, or reptiles.
  • Piscivores. are those who devour fish and other non-mammalian marine animals.
  • Insectivores are those that feed on insects and other arthropods.

On the other hand, we can also distinguish carnivores according to the ratio of the meat in their diet, since they combine it with other food sources:

  • Hypercarnivores eat mostly meat (approximately 70% of their diet).
  • Mesocarnivores combine meat and other food sources in the same proportion (approximately 50% of their diet).
  • Hypocarnivores include meat in their diets, but in less quantities (up to 30% of their diet).

Herbivorous animals

Herbivorous animals, unlike carnivores, are consumers getting their energy from organic matter of plant origins, ingesting parts of plants: leaves, stems, bulbs, roots, fruits, seeds, flowers, etc. In some cases, seaweed is also a part of their diet.

Herbivores usually live in regions with abundant vegetation and have teeth or beaks conditioned for the type of plant matter that makes up their diet. This includes flat molars to grind up plant fibers, as well as a complex stomachs or a long, recurring digestive system, in which plant cellulose can break down and transform into energy.

Examples of herbivores are cattle like cows, or wild animals such as the antelope, and the giraffe.

Omnivorous animals

Dingo dog - desert animalsDomestic dogs are omnivorous animals.

A category that goes beyond the carnivore-herbivore bipolarity is the omnivorous animals, capable of obtaining their sustenance from very diverse and complementary sources. They can subsist on vegetarian, carnivorous, or mixed diets.

They are non-specialized consumers, who can play the role of predators, scavengers and herbivores at will. Some cases of omnivorous animals are bears, pigs, domestic dogs, apes. Humans are also omnivores.