Sunday, 2 February 2014

Carnivore - Meeting the Meat-Eaters

If ever a lion is looking at you like this, it's time to run. Or play dead. Or climb a tree. I don't actually know what to do.
(photo by Martin "About to be Eaten" Falsbisoner)


Noun. Mid-19th century.
[French, from Latin carnivorus: see next.]

A carnivorous animal;

a member of the order Carnivora of mainly carnivorous mammals 
(including dogs, cats, bears, seals, etc.).

Also, a carnivorous plant. 


Adjective. Late 16th century.
[Latin carnivorus from caro, carn- flesh: see -VOROUS.]

1 Feeding on flesh; preying on other animals;
ZOOLOGY belonging to the order Carnivora (see preceding). L16

2 Of plants: able to absorb and digest animals substances. M19

carnivorously adverb M19
carnivory noun carnivorous behaviour. E20

Of all the vores, the meat-munching carnivore gets all the attention. And there's quite a few vores to contend with: omnivores, herbivores, insectivores, piscivores, planktivores, avivores, vermivores, etc, etc, munch, munch, munch. For sheer impact, though, nothing beats seeing one living creature munching on the vanquished carcass of another. There's a reason that the documentarians never linger gleefully on the herds of zebra chewing grass; it's far more interesting to see prides of lions chewing on zebra. Etymologically, carnivore isn't an a particularly interesting word - its root is a simple fusion of the Latin for 'meat' and 'eater'. However, what is interesting is that animals aren't as easily categorised as carnivore, herbivore, omnivore, etc, as one might think, as there's considerable overlap between such definitions (a bird-butchering avivore, for example, must be a carnivore too). The exact characteristics of what puts what animal in what category aren't even universally agreed upon. Within the broad definition of carnivore (that which feeds on flesh), there are also equally broads definitions as to the type of carnivore an animal is. Below is a list of five of the main types:

Photo by S.Taheri

Obligate Carnivore

An obligate carnivore quite simply has to have meat (it's obligated) as it can only meet its nutritional requirements through the consumption of flesh. Physiologically, they lack the digestive functions to process plant and vegetable matter, so there's absolutely no point in trying to convince little Whiskers to be a vegetarian as he's unable to synthesize certain vital nutrients or obtain them from anything other than meat. Occasionally, obligate carnivores will consume other materials for non-nutritional purposes (as an emetic, for example).

Examples: Cats (felidae), from Tiddles to tigers, are obligate carnivores, as are polar bears and snakes.

Photo by Daniel Mott

Facultative Carnivore

A facultative carnivore has the faculty to digest and obtain nutrients from both flesh and plant material. It might even be able to live for a time on one or the other. The proportion of meat in its natural diet will determine whether it's a facultative hypercarnivore, mesocarnivore or hypocarnivore.

Examples: Dogs and wolves.

Photo by Ansgar Walk


A hypercarnivore (not a hyper carnivore) has a diet consisting of more than 70% meat,
though they may supplement it with some plant matter unless they're an obligate carnivore too.

Examples: Cats, polar bears, dolphins, orcas, eagles and sharks.

Photo by Karen Arnold

A mesocarnivore's diet is between 50-70% meat. By human standards, that's still an awful lot.

Examples: Coyotes, skunks and many species of fox.

Photo by Harvey Barrison

The lightweights of the carnivore world, a hypocarnivore's diet consists of less than 30% meat.
They sometimes get teased by other, more hardcore carnivores.

Examples: Black bears, binturongs and raccoons.

Are you a carnivore?

What percentage of your diet is meat?

Are you really going to tell me that your cat is a strict vegetarian?

Do please leave your most well done comments below.


  1. Oh I do love the apex predators! Even as a little kid I was always rooting for the wolves to catch Bambi. It might be gruesome in the moment, but you've got to admire the strategy and dedication of the hunters. The Planet Earth series reinforced that for me, as did reading some of Barbara Kingsolver's work, where she talks about the importance of the carnivores for a healthy food chain, from the predators on down.

    Up the big cats! And thanks for cluing me in to the binturong. Managed to get this far in life without knowing they existed.

    1. Ssh! Don't tell anyone, but I hadn't heard of a binturong either ...

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  2. I love animals of all shapes and sizes.
    And I love watching nature shows.
    And while I admire the technique of the hunters, I cannot watch them catch their prey.
    I know it's how they survive, etc, etc., but I want them all to live!
    Heck, I even release spiders outside! :)

    1. Ha! I'm the official spider-catcher in my house, Jingles, and for all my carnivorous glee in this post, I also set them free in the garden (but then I'm not an obligate arachnvore).

      And ... my daughter and I were watching a documentary on Komodo dragons the other day, in which a group of them bit the legs of some kind of water buffalo and then just followed it around for days until the wounds got infected, it got sick and keeled over. I turned it off - I claimed it was because I didn't want my little girl seeing that, but that was only partly true - I didn't want to watch it either. It was pretty harrowing.

  3. First of all - documentaries featuring carnivorous activity break my tender heart! How can I "cheer for" one species when it means the death of another? I'm always torn. Personally, I could go for some zebras munching on grass haha! I guess I'm with Jingles - I want them all to live! Though when it comes to spiders in the house, that usually comes down to me and a fly swatter... I can't get close enough to them to release them outside.

    I must admit, I rather liked your comment regarding the poor mistreatment of hypocarnivores for their less than hardcore meat eating practices :p.

    1. But Kara, like Katie says, carnivores are actually a vital balance in their ecosystems. An ancient African saying comes to mind: "Too many zebras spoil the savannah."

      PS - That's not a real African saying. I just made it up. Good, though, innit?

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