16 of the Fiercest Apex Predators in the World

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An apex predator is the animal at the top, or apex, of its food web that has no natural predators. These top predators often have large home ranges and small population densities, which means human interference and habitat encroachment can pose serious threats to their survival. But apex predators fulfill important ecological roles, helping to regulate prey populations and changing prey behavior in ways that benefit other species. 

Below is a list of 16 of the fiercest apex predators around — but first, one familiar superpredator. 

Are Humans Apex Predators?

Recent research has concluded that our Paleolithic ancestors were apex predators until the megafauna they hunted began to decline and humans started domesticating animals and practicing agriculture. But some scientists describe modern humans as superpredators because of the rate at which we kill terrestrial carnivores (up to nine times higher than natural predators). Humans’ use of technology, our habit of poaching for reasons other than food, and our tendency to consume adult animals rather than juveniles make us a destructive force in the animal kingdom.

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Orca

An orca emerges from the water near a beach with prey in its mouth.

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The orca, or killer whale (Carcharodon carcharias), is a curious combination of fearsome predator and charismatic marine mammal. These large, black-and-white members of the dolphin family live in all the world’s oceans. Extremely social, orcas travel in pods and have complex forms of communication. Weighing up to six tons, adults can consume 100 pounds each day, including seals, sea lions, smaller whales and dolphins, fish, sharks, squid, turtles, sea birds, and sea otters. Orcas are coordinated hunters, working in groups to pursue and exhaust prey. They often target whale calves, separating them from their mothers and drowning them.

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Great White Shark

A great white shark with open mouth swims up toward prey near the water's surface.

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Thanks to “Jaws,” the great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) has the reputation of being a ruthless, rather unintelligent people killer. In reality, attacks on humans are rare, and scientists now understand great whites to be intelligent, curious, social creatures that fear orcas. Great whites have a broad range across cold temperate and subtropical oceans. They hunt marine mammals and also feed on turtles and seabirds. A common hunting strategy involves getting directly below its prey and swimming up to attack from below. Facing pressures from humans, great white populations have plummeted in the past half century. 

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Tiger

A tiger faces front with grasslands in background.

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Tigers (Panthera tigris) are typically solitary nighttime hunters, relying primarily on sight and sound rather than smell to locate prey. Their diet includes deer, buffalo, goats, leopards, wild pigs, elephants, crocodiles, and birds. They kill smaller prey by biting the back of its neck to break the spinal cord; larger prey are killed by grabbing the throat and crushing the trachea, causing suffocation. Once present across Asia and parts of the Middle East, human encroachment and poaching have decimated tiger populations. Today they are listed as an endangered species, with fewer than 4,000 left in the wild.

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Polar Bear

A polar bear drags a seal along a patch of Arctic sea ice.

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Ursus maritimus means maritime bear, and polar bears are seldom far from sea ice. They hunt seals and other small mammals, fish, and sea birds, and scavenge carcasses of seals, walruses, and whales. Their preferred prey is the ringed seal. A bear will wait by a crack in the ice to grab seals coming up for air. If the seal is basking, the bear will stalk or swim under the ice to surprise it by popping up through a crack. As climate change causes Arctic sea ice to melt, however, polar bears risk losing their habitat and hunting grounds.

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Bald Eagle

A bald eagle flies low over water with a fish in its talons.

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Driven nearly to extinction by hunting and pesticides, the bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) is today a conservation success story. These powerful birds are one of the largest raptors in North America. They tend to live close to rivers, lakes, and ocean waters to hunt fish, but they have a varied diet that includes water birds as well as small mammals like squirrels, rabbits, and sea otter pups. They scan for prey from the sky or a perch, then swoop to grab prey in their sharp talons. Bald eagles also feed on carrion and steal prey from other birds. 

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Saltwater Crocodile

Head and tail of a saltwater crocodile at the water's edge.

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The world’s largest living reptile, saltwater crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus) can reach a whopping 21 feet in length (females are much smaller). They live near the coasts of northern Australia, New Guinea, and Indonesia, but range as far as Sri Lanka and India, southeast Asia, Borneo, and the Philippines. When hunting, the crocodile submerges itself with only its eyes and nostrils above the water’s surface, awaiting prey as small as a crab, turtle, or bird and as large as a monkey, buffalo, or boar. It can lunge and kill with a single snap of its enormous jaws, often eating prey underwater.

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African Lion

A female lion with a bloody nose and mouth carries a dead baby zebra by the neck.

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In addition to sub-Saharan Africa, the African lion (Panthera leo) once inhabited southwest Asia and north Africa. Lions live in plains or savanna, and can also be found in forested, semi-desert, and mountainous habitats. Lions live and hunt in prides although the killing itself is done by a single lion, usually a female, either by suffocation or breaking the prey’s neck. Prey vary by location, but include elephants, buffalo, giraffes, and gazelles, impalas, warthogs, and wildebeests. If larger prey isn’t available, lions will eat birds, rodents, fish, ostrich eggs, amphibians, and reptiles, as well as scavenge.

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Komodo Dragon

A komodo dragon walks with its tongue sticking out.

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The Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis) is from the lesser Sunda region of Indonesia, typically in tropical savannah lowlands. These dark brown lizards can weigh 360 pounds and reach a length of nearly 10 feet. Although their typical diet is carrion, Komodo dragons will attack large prey, including goats, pigs, deer, wild boar, horses, water buffalo, and even smaller Komodo dragons. Komodo dragons ambush prey, biting them to inject powerful venom and then pursuing the animal until it succumbs. They can eat 80% of their body weight in a single feeding. 

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Snow Leopard

Snow Leopard
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The elusive snow leopard (Uncia uncia) has evolved to survive some of the harshest conditions on Earth in the high mountain ranges of Central Asia, including the Himalayas, as well as Bhutan, Nepal, and Siberia. Its extremely long tail helps it balance on steep rocky terrain, furry feet act as snowshoes, and powerful hind legs enable it to leap several times its body length. Snow leopards hunt a variety of mammals, including antelope, gazelle, and yaks, as well as smaller mammals and birds. They are classified as endangered, with habitat loss and poaching posing major threats.

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Grizzly Bear

A grizzly bear runs through a river.

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Once widespread throughout western North America, grizzlies (Ursus arctos horribilis) are listed as a threatened species. Today, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and northwest Montana are the only areas south of Canada that still have large populations. Grizzlies are omnivores, consuming a varied seasonal diet of rodents, insects, elk calves, deer, fish berries, roots, pine nuts, and grasses. They also scavenge large mammals like elk and bison. Grizzlies eat voraciously throughout the summer and early fall as they store up fat to survive the winter months in a state of torpor, when their body temperature, heart rate, breathing, and metabolism decrease.

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Dingo

A dingo walks across a shrubby, arid landscape.

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The dingo (Canis lupus dingo) inhabits plains, forests, mountains, and deserts of western and central Australia, but evidence suggests that they originated in Southeast Asia. Today there are dingo populations in Thailand, as well as groups in Myanmar, Laos, Malaysia, Indonesia, Borneo, the Philippines, and New Guinea. They tend to hunt small prey like rabbits, rats, and possums alone, but will hunt in pairs and family groups when pursuing larger prey like kangaroos, and sheep and cattle — although livestock constitute only a very small portion of most dingos’ diets. Dingos also eat birds and reptiles, and feed on carrion. 

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Tasmanian Devil

A tasmanian devil with open mouth bares its teeth.

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Unlike most apex predators, Tasmanian devils (Sarcophilus harrisii) are nocturnal, solitary marsupials that scavenge larger prey, including wombats, rabbits, and wallabies. They participate in aggressive group feeding sessions with loud shrieks and growls. The largest marsupials in the world following the extinction of the Tasmanian tiger in 1936, Tasmanian devils are endangered, ravaged by a contagious cancer called devil facial tumor disease. However, a recent conservation program reintroduced the devils to mainland Australia after 3,000 years, where it’s hoped that they will help control the feral cat and non-native fox populations while increasing their own numbers. 

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Leopard Seal

A leopard seal near a penguin in Antarctica

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With those distinctive spots, it’s not difficult to figure out how the leopard seal (Hydrurga leptonyx) got its name. The largest seal in the Antarctic, it feeds mainly on krill by filtering them through their teeth. But it also hunts penguins, fish, other seal species, and squid. Up to 10-feet long, it can swim up to 25 miles per hour and dive to depths of 250 feet in pursuit of prey, making it a formidable predator (don’t let its friendly smile fool you). They grab penguins by grabbing them with their incisor teeth and shaking vigorously to skin them

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Fossa

A fossa walks across a dirt clearing.

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Endemic to Madagascar, the fossa (Cryptoprocta ferox) belongs to the one of the most understudied and threatened groups of carnivores. This mysterious creature resembles a cat but is more closely related to a mongoose. It hunts in packs, preying on small mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and insects. Among its favored prey are lemurs, which it pursues through trees with agility thanks to its long tail and retractable claws. Classified as endangered since 2000, the fossa’s habitat is increasingly fragmented by deforestation. They are also killed by people for entering villages, where they're perceived as threats to poultry and small livestock

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Harpy Eagle

A harpy eagle with gray head and raised crown feathers perches in a forest.

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The harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja) has startlingly intense black eyes, fluffy gray feathers around the face, and long black feathers at the crown of the head that raise in a rather ominous fashion when it’s threatened. One of the world’s largest eagles, it stands over three feet high with a wingspan of nearly seven feet. The neotropical rainforest species preys primarily on sloths and monkeys, although it can carry off lizards, birds, rodents, and even small deer using talons longer than a grizzly bear’s claws. Unfortunately, it is in danger from deforestation and from poachers

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Burmese Python

A python with brown and tan markings

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Can invasive species become apex predators? Escaped Burmese pythons (Python molurus bivittatus) in the Florida Everglades are causing a precipitous decline in some native species, altering the local food web in an ecosystem already threatened by pollution and climate change. Yet their numbers are declining in their native Southeast Asia. A Burmese python kills its prey by lunging, impaling it, and squeezing it to death. Aided by intense contractions, it crams the animal through its mouth and expandable esophagus to its stomach, where powerful acids and enzymes break down its dinner. Pythons consume prey many times their size, including deer and alligators.