What Is a Carnivore?

The word carnivore is a generic term for any animal that subsists on a diet composed mainly or entirely of other animals rather than plants. When most people think of carnivores, animals such as lions, wolves and bears come to mind. In taxonomy (the science of classifying plants and animals), these “typical” carnivores are members of an order (a group of families) called Carnivora, which also includes badgers, civets, genets, hyenas, mongoose, raccoons, seals, skunks, weasels and other related meat-eating mammals. The term for members of this order is carnivorans.

Almost all carnivorans are carnivores. (Why almost? A few members of the order, such as the giant panda and the Andean or spectacled bear, have evolved to live on a vegetarian diet.) But not all carnivores are carnivorans. In fact, many other carnivorous species exist. Among mammals, other carnivores include certain whales and bats, and the members of the order Insectivora (insect-eaters) such as shrews and hedgehogs. There is also an entire family of carnivorous marsupials (pouched mammals) called Dasyuridae, the largest of which is the Tasmanian devil.

Mammals are not the only carnivores. Many birds, reptiles and amphibians, as well as most fish, are carnivores. Many invertebrates fit the definition as well, from insects and spiders to the world's largest invertebrate, the colossal squid. There are even carnivorous plants, such as pitcher plants and Venus flytraps.