Temporal range: 51.88–0 Ma Early Eocene-Holocene[1]
CheetahBrown bearSpotted hyenaWolfBinturongRaccoonIndian grey mongooseAmerican minkFossaWalrus
Various carnivorans, with feliforms to the left, and caniforms to the right
Scientific classification Edit this classification
Domain: Eukaryota
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Clade: Carnivoramorpha
Clade: Carnivoraformes
Order: Carnivora
Bowdich, 1821[2]
The extant distribution and density of Carnivora species.
list of synonyms:
  • Caniformes (Zagorodniuk, 2008)[3][4]
  • Carnaria (Haeckel, 1866)[5]
  • Carnassidentia (Wortman, 1901)[6]
  • Carnivoramorphia (Kalandadze & Rautian, 1992)[7]
  • Carnivores (Cuvier, 1817)[8]
  • Carnivori (Vieq d'Azyr, 1792)[9]
  • Carnivorida (Pearse, 1936)[10][11]
  • Carnivoriformes (Kinman, 1994)[12]
  • Carnivoripedida (Vyalov, 1966)[13]
  • Cynofeliformia (Ginsburg, 1982)
  • Cynofeloidea (Hough, 1953)[14]
  • Cynosia (Rafinesque, 1815)[15]
  • Digitigrada (Illiger, 1811)[16]
  • Digitigradae (Gray, 1821)[17]
  • Eucarnivora (Mekayev, 2002)[18]
  • Ferae (Linnaeus, 1758)[19]
  • Fissipeda (Blumenbach, 1791)[20]
  • Neocarnivora (Radinsky, 1977)[21]
  • Plantigrada (Illiger, 1811)

Carnivora /kɑːrˈnɪvərə/ is an order of placental mammals that have specialized in primarily eating flesh, whose members are formally referred to as carnivorans. The order Carnivora is the fifth largest order of mammals, comprising at least 279 species on every major landmass and in a variety of habitats, ranging from the cold Polar regions of Earth the hyper-arid region of the Sahara Desert to the open seas. They have a very large array of different body plans with a wide diversity of shapes and sizes.

Carnivora are divided into two suborders, the Feliformia, containing the true felids and several "cat-like" animals; and the Caniformia, containing the true canids and many "dog-like" animals. The feliforms include the Felidae, Viverridae, hyena and mongoose families, the majority of which live in the Old World; cats are the only exception, occurring in the old world and the new world via crossing into the Americas. The caniforms include the Caninae, Procyonidae, bears, mustelids, skunks and pinnipeds that occur worldwide with immense diversity in their morphology, diet and behavior.


The word carnivore is derived from Latin carō (stem carn-) 'flesh' and vorāre 'to devour', and refers to any meat-eating organism.


The oldest known carnivoran line mammals (Carnivoramorpha) appeared in North America 6 million years after the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event.[22][23] These early ancestors of carnivorans would have resembled small weasel or genet-like mammals, occupying a nocturnal shift on the forest floor or in the trees, as other groups of mammals like the mesonychians and later the creodonts were occupying the megafaunal faunivorous niche. However, following the extinction of mesonychians and the oxyaenid creodonts at the end of the Eocene, carnivorans quickly moved into this niche, with forms like the nimravids being the dominant large-bodied ambush predators during the Oligocene alongside the hyaenodont creodonts (which similarly produced larger, more open-country forms at the start of the Oligocene). By the time Miocene epoch appeared, most if not all of the major lineages and families of carnivorans had diversified and become the most dominant group of large terrestrial predators in Eurasia and North America, with various lineages being successful in megafaunal faunivorous niches at different intervals during the Miocene and later epochs.



Life reconstruction of Tapocyon robustus, a species of miacid

The order Carnivora belongs to a group of mammals known as Laurasiatheria, which also includes other groups such as bats and ungulates.[24][25] Within this group the carnivorans are placed in the clade Ferae. Ferae includes the closest extant relative of carnivorans, the pangolins, as well as several extinct groups of mostly Paleogene carnivorous placentals such as the creodonts, the arctocyonians, and mesonychians.[26] The creodonts were originally thought of as the sister taxon to the carnivorans, perhaps even ancestral to, based on the presence of the carnassial teeth,[27] but the nature of the carnassial teeth is different between the two groups. In carnivorans the carnassials are positioned near the front of the molar row, while in the creodonts they are positioned near the back of the molar row,[28] and this suggests a separate evolutionary history and an order-level distinction.[29] In addition, recent phylogenetic analysis suggests that creodonts are more closely related to pangolins while mesonychians might be the sister group to carnivorans and their stem-relatives.[26]

The closest stem-carnivorans are the miacoids. The miacoids include the families Viverravidae and Miacidae, and together the Carnivora and Miacoidea form the stem-clade Carnivoramorpha. The miacoids were small, genet-like carnivoramorphs that occupy a variety of niches such as terrestrial and arboreal habitats. Recent studies have shown a supporting amount of evidence that Miacoidea is an evolutionary grade of carnivoramorphs that, while viverravids are monophyletic basal group, the miacids are paraphyletic in respect to Carnivora (as shown in the phylogeny below).[30][31]

Carnivoramorpha as a whole first appeared in the Paleocene of North America about 60 million years ago.[23] Crown carnivorans first appeared around 42 million years ago in the Middle Eocene.[32] Their molecular phylogeny shows the extant Carnivora are a monophyletic group, the crown group of the Carnivoramorpha.[33] From there carnivorans have split into two clades based on the composition of the bony structures that surround the middle ear of the skull, the cat-like feliforms and the dog-like caniforms.[34] In feliforms, the auditory bullae are double-chambered, composed of two bones joined by a septum. Caniforms have single-chambered or partially divided auditory bullae, composed of a single bone.[35] Initially, the early representatives of carnivorans were small as the creodonts (specifically, the oxyaenids) and mesonychians dominated the apex predator niches during the Eocene, but in the Oligocene, carnivorans became a dominant group of apex predators with the nimravids, and by the Miocene most of the extant carnivoran families have diversified and become the primary terrestrial predators in the Northern Hemisphere.

Classification of the extant carnivorans

See also: List of carnivorans

In 1758, the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus placed all carnivorans known at the time into the group Ferae (not to be confused with the modern concept of Ferae which also includes pangolins) in the tenth edition of his book Systema Naturae. He recognized six genera: Canis (canids and hyaenids), Phoca (pinnipeds), Felis (felids), Viverra (viverrids, herpestids, and mephitids), Mustela (non-badger mustelids), Ursus (ursids, large species of mustelids, and procyonids).[19] It was not until 1821 that the English writer and traveler Thomas Edward Bowdich gave the group its modern and accepted name.[2]

Initially, the modern concept of Carnivora was divided into two suborders: the terrestrial Fissipedia and the marine Pinnipedia.[36] Below is the classification of how the extant families were related to each other after American paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson in 1945:[36]

Since then, however, the methods in which mammalogists use to assess the phylogenetic relationships among the carnivoran families has been improved with using more complicated and intensive incorporation of genetics, morphology and the fossil record. Research into Carnivora phylogeny since 1945 has found Fisspedia to be paraphyletic in respect to Pinnipedia,[37] with pinnipeds being either more closely related to bears or to weasels.[38][39][40][41][42] The small carnivoran families Viverridae,[43] Procyonidae, and Mustelidae have been found to be polyphyletic:

Below is a table chart of the extant carnivoran families and number of extant species recognized by various authors of the first (2009[54]) and fourth (2014[55]) volumes of the Handbook of the Mammals of the World:

Carnivora Bowdich, 1821
Feliformia Kretzoi, 1945
Nandinioidea Pocock, 1929
Family English Name Distribution Number of Extant Species Type Taxon Image Figure
Nandiniidae Pocock, 1929 African Palm Civet Sub-Saharan Africa 1 Nandinia binotata (J. E. Gray, 1830)
Feloidea G. Fischer de Waldheim, 1817
Family English Name Distribution Number of Extant Species Type Taxon Image Figure
Felidae G. Fischer de Waldheim, 1817 Cats Americas, Africa, and Eurasia (introduced to Madagascar, Australasia and several islands) 37 Felis catus Linnaeus, 1758
Prionodontidae Horsfield, 1822 Linsangs Indomalayan realm 2 Prionodon linsang (Hardwicke, 1821)
Viverroidea J. E. Gray, 1821
Family English Name Distribution Number of Extant Species Type Taxon Image Figure
Viverridae J. E. Gray, 1821 Civets, genets, and oyans Southern Europe, Indomalayan realm, and Africa (introduced to Madagascar) 34 Viverra zibetha Linnaeus, 1758
Herpestoidea Bonaparte, 1845
Family English Name Distribution Number of Extant Species Type Taxon Image Figure
Hyaenidae J. E. Gray, 1821 Hyenas Africa, the Middle East, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Indian subcontinent 4 Hyaena hyaena (Linnaeus, 1758)
Herpestidae Bonaparte, 1845 Mongooses Iberian Peninsula, Africa, the Middle East, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Indomalayan realm 34 Herpestes ichneumon (Linnaeus, 1758)
Eupleridae Chenu, 1850 Malagasy mongooses and civets Madagascar 8 Eupleres goudotii Doyère, 1835
Caniformia Kretzoi, 1945
Canoidea G. Fischer de Waldheim, 1817
Family English Name Distribution Number of Extant Species Type Taxon Image Figure
Canidae G. Fischer de Waldheim, 1817 Dogs Americas, Africa, and Eurasia (introduced to Madagascar, Australasia and several islands) 35 Canis familiaris Linnaeus, 1758
Ursoidea G. Fischer de Waldheim, 1817
Family English Name Distribution Number of Extant Species Type Taxon Image Figure
Ursidae G. Fischer de Waldheim, 1817 Bears Americas and Eurasia 8 Ursus arctos Linnaeus, 1758
Phocoidea J. E. Gray, 1821
Family English Name Distribution Number of Extant Species Type Taxon Image Figure
Odobenidae J. A. Allen, 1880 Walrus The North Pole in the Arctic Ocean and subarctic seas of the Northern Hemisphere 1 Odobenus rosmarus (Linnaeus, 1758)
Otariidae J. E. Gray, 1825 Eared Seals Subpolar, temperate, and equatorial waters throughout the Pacific and Southern Oceans and the southern Indian and Atlantic Oceans 15 Otaria flavescens (Linnaeus, 1758)
Phocidae J. E. Gray, 1821 Earless Seals The sea and Lake Baikal 18 Phoca vitulina Linnaeus, 1758
Musteloidea G. Fischer de Waldheim, 1817
Family English Name Distribution Number of Extant Species Type Taxon Image Figure
Mephitidae Bonaparte, 1845 Skunks and stink badgers Americas, western Philippines, and Indonesia and Malaysia 12 Mephitis mephitis (Schreber, 1776)
Ailuridae J. E. Gray, 1843 Red Panda Eastern Himalayas and southwestern China 1 Ailurus fulgens F. Cuvier, 1825
Procyonidae J. E. Gray, 1825 Raccoons Americas (introduced to Europe, the Caucasus, and Japan) 12 Procyon lotor (Linnaeus, 1758)
Mustelidae G. Fischer de Waldheim, 1817 Weasels, otters, and badgers Americas, Africa, and Eurasia (introduced to Australasia and several islands) 57 Mustela erminea Linnaeus, 1758



Skull of a fossa (Cryptoprocta ferox). Note the large and conical canine and carnassial teeth common in feliforms.

The canine teeth are usually large, conical, thick and stress resistant. All of the terrestrial species of carnivorans have three incisors on each side of each jaw (the exception is the sea otter (Enhydra lutris) which only has two lower incisor teeth).[56] The third molar has been lost. The carnassial pair is made up of the fourth upper premolar and the first lower molar teeth. Like most mammals, the dentition is heterodont, though in some species, such as the aardwolf (Proteles cristata), the teeth have been greatly reduced and the cheek teeth are specialised for eating insects. In pinnipeds, the teeth are homodont as they have evolved to grasp or catch fish, and the cheek teeth are often lost.[57] In bears and raccoons, the carnassial pair is secondarily reduced.[57] The skulls are heavily built with a strong zygomatic arch. Often a sagittal crest is present, sometimes more evident in sexually dimorphic species such as sea lions and fur seals, though it has also been greatly reduced in some small carnivorans.[57] The braincase is enlarged with the frontoparietal bone at the front. In most species, the eyes are at the front of the face. In caniforms, the rostrum is usually long with many teeth, while in feliforms it is shorter with fewer teeth. The carnassial teeth of feliforms are generally more sectional[clarification needed] than those of caniforms. The turbinates are large and complex in comparison to other mammals, providing a large surface area for olfactory receptors.[57]

Postcranial region

A black-backed jackal (Lupulella mesomelas) trying to predate on a brown fur seal (Arctocephalus pusillus) pup. These two species illustrate the diversity in bodyplan seen among carnivorans, especially between pinnipeds and their terrestrial relatives.

Aside from an accumulation of characteristics in the dental and cranial features, not much of their overall anatomy unites carnivorans as a group.[56] All species of carnivorans are quadrupedal and most have five digits on the front feet and four digits on the back feet. In terrestrial carnivorans, the feet have soft pads. The feet can either be digitigrade as seen in cats, hyenas and dogs or plantigrade as seen in bears, skunks, raccoons, weasels, civets and mongooses. In pinnipeds, the limbs have been modified into flippers.

A tiger sleeping in a zoo
Members of the Carnivora order, like this tiger, have pads on their feet.

Unlike cetaceans and sirenians, which have fully functional tails to help them swim, pinnipeds use their limbs underwater to swim. Earless seals use their back flippers; sea lions and fur seals use their front flippers, and the walrus use all of their limbs. As a result, pinnipeds have significantly shorter tails than other carnivorans.

Aside from the pinnipeds, dogs, bears, hyenas, and cats all have distinct and recognizable appearances. Dogs are usually cursorial mammals and are gracile in appearance, often relying on their teeth to hold prey; bears are much larger and rely on their physical strength to forage for food. Compared to dogs and bears, cats have longer and stronger forelimbs armed with retractable claws to hold on to prey. Hyenas are dog-like feliforms that have sloping backs due to their front legs being longer than their hind legs. The raccoon family and red panda are small, bear-like carnivorans with long tails. The other small carnivoran families Nandiniidae, Prionodontidae, Viverridae, Herpestidae, Eupleridae, Mephitidae and Mustelidae have through convergent evolution maintained the small, ancestral appearance of the miacoids, though there is some variation seen such as the robust and stout physicality of badgers and the wolverine (Gulo gulo).[56]

Most carnivoran species have a well-defined breeding season.[58] Male carnivorans usually have bacula, which are absent in hyenas and binturongs.[59]

The length and density of the fur vary depending on the environment that the species inhabits. In warm climate species, the fur is often short in length and lighter. In cold climate species, the fur is either dense or long, often with an oily substance that helps to retain heat. The pelage coloration differs between species, often including black, white, orange, yellow, red, and many shades of grey and brown. Some are striped, spotted, blotched, banded, or otherwise boldly patterned. There seems to be a correlation between habitat and color pattern; for example spotted or banded species tend to be found in heavily forested environments.[56] Some species like the grey wolf are polymorphic with different individual having different coat colors. The arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus) and the stoat (Mustela erminea) have fur that changes from white and dense in the winter to brown and sparse in the summer. In pinnipeds and polar bears, a thick insulating layer of blubber helps maintain their body temperature.

Sexual dimorphism

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Sexual dimorphism in pinnipeds particularly elephant seals is the most pronounced among Carnivorans.
Sexual dimorphism in lions is the most prominent among felids
Sexual dimorphism is the condition where sexes of the same species exhibit different morphological characteristics, particularly characteristics not directly involved in reproduction.[60] Sexual dimorphism in carnivorans, in which males are larger than females, is common. Sexual selection is frequently cited as the cause of the intraspecific divergence in body proportions and craniomandibular morphology between the sexes within the Carnivora order.[61][62] It is anticipated that animals with polygynous mating systems and high levels of territoriality and solitary behavior will exhibit the highest levels of sexual size dimorphism. Pinnipeds offer an illustration for this.

Relationship with humans

Carnivorans are arguably the group of mammals of most interest to humans. The dog is noteworthy for not only being the first species of carnivoran to be domesticated, but also the first species of any taxon. In the last 10,000 to 12,000 years, humans have selectively bred dogs for a variety of different tasks and today there are well over 400 breeds. The cat is another domesticated carnivoran and it is today considered one of the most successful species on the planet, due to their close proximity to humans and the popularity of cats as pets. Many other species are popular, and they are often charismatic megafauna. Many civilizations have incorporated a species of carnivoran into their culture: a prominent example is the lion, viewed as a symbol of power and royalty in many societies. Yet many species such as wolves and the big cats have been broadly hunted, resulting in extirpation in some areas. Habitat loss and human encroachment as well as climate change have been the primary cause of many species going into decline. Four species of carnivorans have gone extinct since the 1600s: Falkland Island wolf (Dusicyon australis) in 1876; the sea mink (Neogale macrodon) in 1894; the Japanese sea lion (Zalophus japonicus) in 1951 and the Caribbean monk seal (Neomonachus tropicalis) in 1952.[22] Some species such as the red fox (Vulpes vulpes) and stoat (Mustela erminea) have been introduced to Australasia and have caused many native species to become endangered or even extinct.[63]

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