carnivore

carnivore

[kahr-nuh-vawr, -vohr]
carnivore, term commonly applied to any animal whose diet consists wholly or largely of animal matter. In animal systematics it refers to members of the mammalian order Carnivora (see Chordata). This large order is divided into two suborders, the Fissipedia, or land carnivores, and the Pinnipedia, or fin-footed carnivores. The Fissipedia encompasses two superfamilies: one (Canoidea) includes the dog, bear, raccoon, and weasel families and the other (Feloidea) includes the cat, civet, and hyena families. The Pinnipedia, often classified as a separate order, includes the seal, sea lion, and walrus families. The term herbivore refers to animals whose diets consist wholly or largely of plant matter; omnivore refers to animals that eat both animal and plant matter. Unlike the term carnivore, these terms do not refer to any one group in animal systematics.

See R. F. Ewer, The Carnivores (1986); J. L. Gittleman, Carnivore Behavior, Ecology, and Evolution (1989).

Any meat-eating animal, but especially any member of the order Carnivora, consisting of 12 families of primarily predatory mammals: Canidae (e.g., dogs), Ursidae (bears), Procyonidae (raccoons), Mustelidae (weasels), Mephitidae (skunks), Viverridae (civets), Herpestidae (mongooses), Hyaenidae (hyenas), Felidae (cats), Otariidae and Phocidae (seals), and Odobenidae (the walrus). Though most carnivores eat only meat, some rely heavily on vegetation (e.g., the panda). Most have a complex tooth structure and a lower jaw that can move only vertically but can exert great power. The earliest carnivores, which probably evolved from an insectivorous ancestor, appeared during the Paleocene Epoch (about 65–55 million years ago). Carnivores are highly intelligent.

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A carnivore meaning 'meat eater' (Latin carne meaning 'flesh' and vorare meaning 'to devour'), is any animal with a diet consisting mainly of meat, whether it comes from animals living (predation) or dead (scavenging).

In a more general sense, animals are loosely considered carnivores if their feeding behaviour consists of preying on other animals rather than grazing on plants. Animals that must eat meat in order to thrive are referred to as obligate carnivores.

Plants that capture and digest insects are called carnivorous plants. Similarly fungi that capture microscopic animals are often called carnivorous fungi.

The designation "hypercarnivore" is used to describe animals that exclusively feed on animal tissue. Additionally, this term is also used in paleobiology to describe taxa of animals which have an increased slicing component of their dentition relative to the grinding component.

Classification

Carnivores are classified by their dietary behaviour. However, because the specific definition of what exactly meat is can be flexible, so too can the definition of carnivore. In the strictest sense, meat may refer to the flesh of mammalian species, but in a broader sense the term might be used to refer to any animal tissue considered food.

Carnivores that eat insects and similar invertebrates primarily or exclusively are called insectivores, while those that eat fish primarily or exclusively are called piscivores. Carnivory that entails the consumption of members of an organism's own species is referred to as cannibalism. This includes sexual cannibalism and cannibalistic infanticide.

The word "carnivore" sometimes refers to the mammalian Order Carnivora, but this is misleading. Although many Carnivora fit the first definition of being exclusively meat eaters, not all do. For example, bears are members of Carnivora, yet are not carnivores in the dietary sense, and pandas are almost exclusively herbivorous. In addition, some full-time (dolphins, shrews) and part-time (humans, pigs) meat-eating mammalian species, as well as all carnivorous non-mammals, are not members of Carnivora.

Outside of the animal kingdom, there are several genera containing carnivorous plants and several phyla containing carnivorous fungi. The former are predominantly insectivores, while the latter prey mostly on microscopic invertebrates such as nematodes, amoeba and springtails.

Prehistoric mammals of the crown-clade Carnivoramorpha (Carnivora and Miacoidea without Creodonta), along with the early Order Creodonta, and some mammals of the even early Order Cimolesta, were true carnivores. The earliest carnivorous mammal is considered to be the Cimolestes that existed during the Late Cretaceous and Tertiary Periods in North America about 65 million years ago. Most species of Cimolestes were mouse to rat-sized, but the Late Cretaceous Cimolestes magnus reached the size of a marmot, making it one of the largest Mesozoic mammals known (20-60g). The cheek teeth combined the functions of piercing, shearing and grinding, and the molars of Palaeoryctes had extremely high and acute cusps that had little function other than piercing. The dentition of Cimolestes foreshadows the same cutting structures seen in all later carnivores. While the earlier smaller species were insectivores, the later marmot-sized Cimolestes magnus probably took larger prey and were definitely a carnivore to some degree. The cheek teeth of Hyracolestes ermineus (an ermine-like shrew - 40g) and Sarcodon pygmaeus ("pygmy flesh tooth" - 75g), were common in the Latest Paleocene of Mongolia and China and occupied the small predator niche. The cheek teeth show the same characteristic notches that serve in today's carnivores to hold flesh in place to shear apart with cutting ridges. The theropod dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus rex that existed during the late Cretaceous, although not mammals, were "obligate carnivores".

Obligate carnivores

An obligate or true carnivore is an animal that must eat meat in order to thrive. Hypercarnivores present specialized dentition for a meat-only diet. They may consume other products presented to them, especially animal products like eggs and bone marrow or sweet sugary substances like honey and syrup, but, as these items are not essential, they do not consume these on a regular basis. True carnivores lack the physiology required for the efficient digestion of vegetable matter, and, in fact, some carnivorous mammals eat vegetation specifically as an emetic. The domestic cat is a prime example of an obligate carnivore, as are all of the other felids.

Characteristics of carnivores

Characteristics commonly 'associated' with carnivores include organs for capturing and disarticulating prey (teeth and claws serve these functions in many vertebrates) and status as a predator. In truth, these assumptions may be misleading, as some carnivores do not hunt and are scavengers (though most hunting carnivores will scavenge when the opportunity exists). Thus they do not have the characteristics associated with hunting carnivores. Carnivores have comparatively short digestive systems as they are not required to break down tough cellulose found in plants.

Plant material

In most cases, some plant material is essential for adequate nutrition, particularly with regard to minerals, vitamins and fiber. Most wild carnivores consume this in the digestive system of their prey. Many carnivores also eat herbivore dung, presumably to obtain essential nutrients that they could not otherwise obtain, since their dentition and digestive system do not permit efficient processing of vegetable matter.

List of carnivores

See also

Compare and contrast

References

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