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Page last updated at 11:43 GMT, Friday, 24 September 2010 12:43 UK
Why lions roar and wildcats miaow
By Ella Davies
Earth News reporter

Tiger growling (E. Kilby)
Big tigers aren't necessarily booming tigers

The low roar of a lion, or the miaow of a wildcat, has more to do with where a cat lives than its size.

Scientists analysed the calls of 27 cat species, investigating how they vary in habitats from open sandy deserts to thickly planted jungles.

Cats living in open areas have deeper calls than those in dense habitats, the researchers found.

Previous research suggested a cat's size determined the pitch of its calls, made to find mates or defend territory.

Wildcat in a pine forest
Forest dwelling wildcats call at a higher pitch

Dr Gustav Peters and Dr Marcell Peters at the Alexander Koenig Zoological Research Museum in Bonn, Germany analysed the average frequencies of long-distance calls made by 27 different species of cat.

These included the great or "roaring" cats, such as lions, tigers and jaguars, which are able to roar due to the specialised structure of their throats.

They then looked for any relationships between the cats' calls and their size, and the habitats in which they live.

Cat species that live in more open types of habitat, such as lions and sand cats, have deeper calls.

Cats living in dense habitats, such as wildcats, clouded leopards and the little known marbled cat, communicate at a higher pitch, the researchers found.

Cheetah in the Serengeti (S. Shepherd)

The findings are published in the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society.

The results are unexpected.

"Most studies of sound transmission of animal acoustic signals found that lower frequencies prevail in dense habitats," says Dr Peters.

For example, previous research has found that high pitch calls are disrupted by dense vegetation.

Low pitch calls meanwhile are disrupted by air turbulence in open spaces.

But that does not explain why lions roar so deeply, for instance.

Another suggestion is that big cats simply produce sounds at a lower frequency.

That would explain a lion's roar compared to a smaller cat's miaow, but when the researchers took into account the genetic heritage of each species studied, they found body weight has no effect on the dominant frequencies of its call.


Members of the cat family Felidae occur naturally on all continents except Australia and Antarctica, and with the exception of lions, they live solitary lives.

Due to this isolation, both males and females use long-distance calls to communicate, to attract mates and deter competition.

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