The Understory


July 31, 2012

Due to the scarcity of large prey, larger predators are relatively rare in the rainforest. Many of these carnivores have adapted to cope with the shortage of large ground-dwelling prey by hunting in the canopy and supplementing their diet with smaller animals like fish, rodents, birds, and reptiles. The largest group of mammalian predators on the forest floor are the cats. Each forested region, except the Australasian realm has its own forest cat species.


The largest rainforest cat species is the tiger which once ranged from tropical India to Arctic Siberia to Southeast Asia. The tiger is threatened by habitat, hunting as vermin (farmers blame tigers for livestock losses), and killing for use in Chinese Traditional Medicine, where some believe tiger parts can cure illness. In the last century three subspecies of tiger have gone extinct: the Caspian, Javan, and Bali tigers. Of the six surviving subspecies, the Bengal or Indian Tiger is the most abundant [news and information on tigers | photos].

Tiger Medicinals Available in the U.S.

The second largest rainforest cat is the jaguar which once ranged from Arizona in the United States to Argentina, but is now mostly limited to forest areas and savannas in the Orinoco and Amazon basins. Ruthless hunting for its furs and as vermin along with forest clearing have dramatically driven this species to its endangered status throughout its range, and some of the eight sub-species are now extinct in the wild. Although it is protected under CITES (Convention on International on International Trade in Endangered Species), the jaguar is still hunted widely and vigorously. This aquatic cat's diet includes a broad range of animals: frogs, fish, rodents, turtles, deer, and caiman. The jaguar is an excellent swimmer and fisher and usually hunts at night. Jaguars are solitary cats that only pair up at mating times.

Leopards range from Asia to Africa and numerous sub-species and races exist. Some of these forms are extremely rare and some, like the Bali leopard, are extinct. The leopard forms of the Southeast Asian islands are smaller than mainland forms.

The puma, also known as the mountain lion, is a large New World cat which ranges from Canada to Patagonia. Besides the great cats, the rainforest also has several smaller species like the leopard cat (Asia), margay (New World), and ocelot (New World). These generally range from the size of a housecat to a dog. Most are nocturnal and hunt both on the forest floor and in the canopy.


The Civet family originated from Asia to Africa, but now has been introduced worldwide. The Civet family is made up of 16 genera including the well-known mongooses. One interesting member of the family is the fishing genet which has a unique feeding habit. Even though it feeds on fish, it is not a great swimmer and even tries to avoid getting wet whenever possible. The fishing genet fishes by tapping its paw against the water surface of small forest streams in order to attract fish. The fishing genet puts its long whiskers against the surface to detect vibrations caused by fish movements. When it senses movement, the genet takes the plunge.

The best-known members of the family are the mongooses which have been popularized by Kipling's Ricky-Ticky-Tavy story as eaters of snakes, though they also feed on insects, small mammals and birds, and eggs. Mongooses have an interesting technique for opening eggs in which they stand with their back to a rock, egg in hand, and violently thrust the egg against the rock.

The armadillo and giant anteater of the Edentata family are ground-dwelling carnivores of the New World, with 21 species of armadillo distributed from the southern U.S. to Patagonia. They are equipped with protective bony plates that render them virtually inedible to predators. Armadillos are excellent diggers who use their fine sense of smell to locate snakes, mice, lizards, and insects. Armadillos range in size from five inches (12 cm) and three ounces (90 g) to the rare giant armadillo which reaches 39 inches (1 m) and 120 pounds (55 kg), excluding the tail. The giant anteater inhabits savannas and rainforests from Guatemala to Argentina. It is a great swimmer and, like its arboreal relatives, a fine climber. It is well-adapted to feeding on ants and termites with its 39-inch (1 m) sticky tongue, strong sense of smell, and powerful, sharp claws. Sloth bears, weighing up to 300 pounds (135 kg), are distributed in the tropical rainforests of Sri Lanka and Southern India. They feed commonly on termites, forming their lips into a tubular shape and sucking them up like a vacuum sweeper. The related sun bear is found in the forests of Southeast Asia.

Jaguar in the Colombian Amazon. Click picture for more jaguar photos. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Review questions:

  • Why are large predators relatively rare in the rainforest?
  • Why are tigers endangered?

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