Encyclopedic Entry

Cougars, like all cats, are a specialized type of carnivore called a hypercarnivore.

Photograph by Rusty Smith, MyShot

Specialized Carnivores
Some carnivores specialize in hunting one type of organism.

  • Spongivores mostly eat sea sponges. Many types of sea turtles are spongivores.
  • Vermivores mostly eat worms. Birds such as snipes and kiwis are vermivores. They have long, narrow beaks for poking in the soil for worms.
  • Avivores mostly eat birds. Many predatory birds, such as hawks and falcons, are avivores. They prey on smaller birds.
  • Ovivores mostly eat eggs. Many snakes are ovivores.

A carnivore is an organism that mostly eats meat, or the flesh of animals. Sometimes carnivores are called predators. Organisms that carnivores hunt are called prey.

Carnivores are a major part of the food web, a description of which organisms eat which other organisms in the wild. Organisms in the food web are grouped into trophic, or nutritional, levels. There are three trophic levels. Autotrophs, organisms that produce their own food, are the first trophic level. These include plants and algae. Herbivores, organisms that eat plants and other autotrophs, are the second trophic level. Carnivores are the third trophic level. Omnivores, creatures that consume a wide variety of organisms from plants to animals to fungi, are also the third trophic level.

Autotrophs are called producers, because they produce their own food. Herbivores, carnivores, and omnivores are consumers. Herbivores are primary consumers. Carnivores and omnivores are secondary consumers.

Many carnivores eat herbivores. Some eat omnivores, and some eat other carnivores. Carnivores that consume other carnivores are called tertiary consumers. Killer whales, or orcas, are a classic example of tertiary consumers. Killer whales hunt seals and sea lions. Seals and sea lions are carnivores that consume fish, squid, and octopuses.

Some carnivores, called obligate carnivores, depend only on meat for survival. Their bodies cannot digest plants properly. Plants do not provide enough nutrients for obligate carnivores. All cats, from small house cats to huge tigers, are obligate carnivores.

Most carnivores are not obligate carnivores. A hypercarnivore is an organism that depends on animals for at least 70 percent of its diet. Plants, fungi, and other nutrients make up the rest of their food. All obligate carnivores, including cats, are hypercarnivores. Sea stars, which prey mostly on clams and oysters, are also hypercarnivores.

Mesocarnivores depend on animal meat for at least 50 percent of their diet. Foxes are mesocarnivores. They also eat fruits, vegetables, and fungi.

Hypocarnivores depend on animal meat for less than 30 percent of their diet. Most species of bears are hypocarnivores. They eat meat, fish, berries, nuts, and even the roots and bulbs of plants. Hypocarnivores such as bears are also considered omnivores.

The planet’s largest animal is a carnivore. The blue whale can reach 30 meters (100 feet) long and weigh as much as 180 metric tons (200 tons). It feeds by taking huge gulps of water and then filtering out tiny shrimp-like creatures called krill. The blue whale can eat about 3.6 metric tons (4 tons) of krill every day—that’s about 40 million of the little creatures. The largest land carnivore is the polar bear, which feeds mainly on seals.

Hunting

Carnivores have biological adaptations that help them hunt. Carnivorous mammals such as wolves have strong jaws and long, sharp teeth that help them grab and rip apart their prey. Plant-eaters, on the other hand, usually have big molars that help them grind up leaves and grasses.

Lions, cougars, and other cats have sharp claws that they use to hunt. Birds such as hawks and owls also hunt with their claws, called talons. Many carnivorous birds, called raptors, have curved beaks that they use to tear apart their prey.

Many carnivores grab their prey in their mouths. Great blue herons wade slowly through shallow water and then suddenly snatch a fish, crab, or other creature from the water. Toads grab mice in their mouths. Sperm whales dive deep into the ocean where they bite hold of squid.

Spiders capture their prey—usually insects—by trapping them in a sticky web. Other carnivores attack their prey with a bite or a sting that injects toxic venom into the victim. The venom either paralyzes or kills the prey. Snakes such as king cobras have hollow fangs that act like needles to inject venom. Cobras mostly prey on other snakes. Jellyfish have stingers on their tentacles, which paralyze fish swimming nearby.

Most carnivores are animals, but plants and fungi can be carnivores also. The Venus flytrap is a plant that catches insects in its leaves. When an insect brushes against the sensitive hairs on the leaf, the leaf folds in two and snaps shut. The insect is trapped inside. Other carnivorous plants, such as the sundew, produce a sticky material that catches insects.

Fungi are a group of organisms that include mushrooms, molds, and mildew. Some fungi trap and consume tiny organisms. Most carnivorous fungi prey on microscopic worms called nematodes, which they trap with suffocating rings.

Diets

Certain types of carnivores have specific diets. Some, such as sea lions, eat mainly fish. They are called piscivores (piscis is the Latin word for fish).

Others, such as lizards, eat mainly insects. They are called insectivores. Many bats are also insectivores. One little brown bat can eat a thousand mosquitoes in an hour. Some insects are themselves insectivores. These include ladybugs, dragonflies, and praying mantises.

Carnivores that have been known to attack and eat human beings are known as man-eaters. Some species of sharks, alligators, and bears are called man-eaters. However, no carnivore specifically hunts human beings or relies on them as a regular food source.

Cannibals are carnivores that eat the meat of members of their own species. Many animals practice cannibalism. For some species, cannibalism is a way of eliminating competitors for food, mates, or other resources. Chimpanzees and bears, for example, will hunt and consume the young of family members, sometimes their own offspring. Praying mantis females will kill and eat the bodies of their mates.



Many carnivores are scavengers, creatures that eat the meat of dead animals, or carrion. Unlike other types of carnivores, scavengers usually do not hunt the animals they eat. Some, such as vultures, consume animals that have died from natural causes. Others, such as hyenas, will snatch meat hunted by other carnivores. Many insects, such as flies and beetles, are scavengers.

Some carnivores, including sea lions, feed often. Others, such as king cobras, can go months between meals.

Carnivores in the Food Chain

For a healthy ecosystem, it is important that the populations of autotrophs, herbivores, and carnivores be in balance. Energy from nutrients is lost at each trophic level. It takes many autotrophs to support a fewer number of herbivores. In turn, a single carnivore may have a home range of dozens or even hundreds of miles. A Siberian tiger, for instance, may patrol a range of 1,000 square kilometers (386 square miles).

In some places, the disappearance of large carnivores has led to an overpopulation of herbivores, disrupting the ecosystem. Wolves and cougars are traditional predators of white-tailed deer, for instance. But hunting and development have eliminated these predators from the northeastern United States. Without natural predators, the population of white-tailed deer has skyrocketed. In some areas, there are so many deer that they cannot find enough food. They frequently stray into towns and suburbs in search of food.

Carnivores depend on herbivores and other animals to survive. Zebras and gazelles once traveled in great herds over the plains of Africa. But these herds have shrunk and are now mostly confined to parks and wildlife reserves. As the numbers of these herbivores decline, carnivores such as African wild dogs, which prey on them, also decline. Scientists estimate that only 3,000 to 5,500 African wild dogs remain in the wild.

Vocabulary

Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry

algae

Plural Noun

(singular: alga) diverse group of aquatic organisms, the largest of which are seaweeds.

autotroph

Noun

organism that can produce its own food and nutrients from chemicals in the atmosphere, usually through photosynthesis or chemosynthesis.

Encyclopedic Entry: autotroph

avivore

Noun

organism that mostly eats birds.

biological adaptation

Noun

physical change in an organism that results over time in reaction to its environment.

blue whale

Noun

species of marine mammal that is the largest animal to have ever lived.

cannibal

Noun

organism that eats the meat of members of its own species.

carnivore

Noun

organism that eats meat.

Encyclopedic Entry: carnivore

carrion

Noun

flesh of a dead animal.

consumer

Noun

organism on the food chain that depends on autotrophs (producers) or other consumers for food, nutrition, and energy.

development

Noun

growth, or changing from one condition to another.

Encyclopedic Entry: development

diet

Noun

foods eaten by a specific group of people or other organisms.

Encyclopedic Entry: diet

digest

Verb

to convert food into nutrients that can be absorbed.

ecosystem

Noun

community and interactions of living and nonliving things in an area.

Encyclopedic Entry: ecosystem

eliminate

Verb

to remove.

fang

Noun

long, sharp, hollow tooth used by some animals to inject venom.

filter

Verb

to remove particles from a substance by passing the substance through a screen or other material that catches larger particles and lets the rest of the substance pass through.

food chain

Noun

group of organisms linked in order of the food they eat, from producers to consumers, and from prey, predators, scavengers, and decomposers.

Encyclopedic Entry: food chain

food web

Noun

all related food chains in an ecosystem. Also called a food cycle.

Encyclopedic Entry: food web

frequent

Adjective

often.

fruit

Noun

edible part of a plant that grows from a flower.

fungi

Plural Noun

(singular: fungus) organisms that survive by decomposing and absorbing nutrients in organic material such as soil or dead organisms.

herbivore

Noun

organism that eats mainly plants.

Encyclopedic Entry: herbivore

home range

Noun

area where an animal lives.

hypercarnivore

Noun

organism that depends on meat for more than 70 percent of its diet.

hypocarnivore

Noun

organism that depends on meat for less than 30 percent of its diet.

insectivore

Noun

organism that mostly eats insects.

killer whale

Noun

carnivorous whale, actually the world's largest species of dolphin. Also called an orca.

krill

Noun

small marine crustacean, similar to shrimp.

mammal

Noun

animal with hair that gives birth to live offspring. Female mammals produce milk to feed their offspring.

man-eater

Noun

organism that has been known to hunt and kill human beings.

meat

Noun

animal flesh eaten as food.

mesocarnivore

Noun

organism that depends on meat for at least 50 percent of its diet.

microscopic

Adjective

very small.

mildew

Noun

type of fungi that usually forms a thin, powdery layer over plants or other organic material.

molar

Noun

large, flat tooth used for chewing and grinding.

mold

Noun

type of fungi that forms on the surface of materials.

nematode

Noun

microscopic, worm-like animal.

nutrient

Noun

substance an organism needs for energy, growth, and life.

Encyclopedic Entry: nutrient

nutrition

Noun

process by which living organisms obtain food or nutrients, and use it for growth.

obligate carnivore

Noun

organism that depends entirely on meat for food, nutrition, and survival.

offspring

Noun

the children of a person or animal.

omnivore

Noun

organism that eats a variety of organisms, including plants, animals, and fungi.

Encyclopedic Entry: omnivore

organism

Noun

living or once-living thing.

overpopulation

Noun

situation where the amount of organisms in an area is too large for the ecosystem to support.

ovivore

Noun

organism that mostly eats eggs.

paralyze

Verb

to prevent movement.

piscivore

Noun

organism that mostly eats fish.

plant

Noun

organism that produces its own food through photosynthesis and whose cells have walls.

polar bear

Noun

large mammal native to the Arctic.

predator

Noun

animal that hunts other animals for food.

prey

Noun

animal that is hunted and eaten by other animals.

primary consumer

Noun

organism that eats plants or other autotrophs.

producer

Noun

organism on the food chain that can produce its own energy and nutrients. Also called an autotroph.

raptor

Noun

bird of prey, or carnivorous bird.

scavenger

Noun

organism that eats dead or rotting biomass, such as animal flesh or plant material.

Encyclopedic Entry: scavenger

sea star

Noun

marine animal (echinoderm) with many arms radiating from its body. Also called a starfish.

secondary consumer

Noun

organism that eats meat.

skyrocket

Verb

to increase rapidly.

species

Noun

group of similar organisms that can reproduce with each other.

spongivore

Noun

organism that mostly eats sea sponges.

sundew

Noun

carnivorous plant with sticky hairs that trap insects.

talon

Noun

claw of a bird, especially a bird of prey or raptor.

tentacle

Noun

a long, narrow, flexible body part extending from the bodies of some animals.

tertiary consumer

Noun

carnivore that mostly eats other carnivores.

toxic

Adjective

poisonous.

trophic level

Noun

one of three positions on the food chain: autotrophs (first), herbivores (second), and carnivores and omnivores (third).

vegetable

Noun

plant that is grown or harvested for food.

venom

Noun

poison fluid made in the bodies of some organisms and secreted for hunting or protection.

Venus flytrap

Noun

carnivorous plant that traps and consumes mostly insects.

vermivore

Noun

organism that mostly eats worms.

wildlife reserve

Noun

area set aside and protected by the government or other organization to maintain wildlife habitat. Also called a nature preserve.

Credits

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Writers

Kim Rutledge
Melissa McDaniel
Diane Boudreau
Tara Ramroop
Santani Teng
Erin Sprout
Hilary Costa
Hilary Hall
Jeff Hunt

Illustrators

Tim Gunther
Mary Crooks, National Geographic Society

Editors

Kara West
Jeannie Evers

Educator Reviewer

Nancy Wynne

Producer

Caryl-Sue, National Geographic Society

Sources

Dunn, Margery G. (Editor). (1989, 1993). "Exploring Your World: The Adventure of Geography." Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society.

User Permissions

For information on user permissions, please read our Terms of Service.

If you have questions about licensing content on this page, please contact natgeocreative@ngs.org for more information and to obtain a license.

If you have questions about how to cite anything on our website in your project or classroom presentation, please visit our FAQ page.

Media

Some media assets (videos, photos, audio recordings and PDFs) can be downloaded and used outside the National Geographic website according to the Terms of Service. If a media asset is downloadable, a download button appears in the lower right hand corner (download) of the media viewer. If no button appears, you cannot download or save the media.

Text

Text on this page is printable and can be used according to our Terms of Service.

Interactives

Any interactives on this page can only be played while you are visiting our website. You cannot download interactives.