The natural world can be a very dangerous place, but some animals – apex predators – are lucky enough to enjoy a life with no fear as they have no predators. The only threat to these species is human activity such as hunting, habitat destruction, and climate change.
What is an apex predator?
‘Apex’ comes from Latin and means peak, or top. An apex predator is a species that’s at the top of the food chain, and has no natural predators in their environment.
Getting scientific, apex predators are defined in terms of trophic dynamics. This refers to the basic process of transferring energy from one trophic level (the groups of organisms at the same level in a food chain) to the next in an ecosystem. Apex predators occupy the highest trophic level in any ecosystem.
Apex predators also go by the names alpha predators or top predators.
Apex predators’ effects on their environment
Apex predators often have a significant impact on their habitat (when they are also known as a ‘keystone species‘). This comes in the form both of controlling prey density and restricting smaller predators, which in turn has knock-on effects on the regulation of disease, and maintaining biodiversity in an area.
When apex predators are removed from or introduced to new environments they can cause what is termed ‘trophic cascades’ – wide-ranging effects on lower levels of the ecosystem. For example, when Arctic foxes were introduced to sub-Artcic islands, their predation of seabirds was shown to turn grassland into tundra, whilst the recent reduction in sperm whale numbers has caused an increase in the population of large squid.
Now we have the basics cleared up, read on below for our pick of the 15 top apex predators from a range of geographic locations and habitats, or skip to the full list of all apex predators in the world:
Komodo Dragon (Varanus komodoensis)
The Komodo dragon is the largest living lizard on Earth, growing up to 3 meters in length and weighing in at 160 kilograms. They are found on only five of Indonesia’s 17,500 islands, living in tropical dry forest and savanna areas on Komodo, Rinca, Gili Motang, Flores, and Padar.
Komodo dragons have no predators in their environment, and are apex predators that feed on any type of meat including carrion, water buffalo, deer, pigs, and have even been known to kill and eat humans. Their saliva contains toxic bacteria, ensuring anything escaping their powerful legs and sharp teeth will die of blood poisoning within 24 hours.
Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii)
The Tasmanian devil is a unique dog-like carnivorous marsupial that once wandered all of Australia, but is now restricted to the island state of Tasmania, with a small breeding population in New South Wales.
Tasmanian devils survive on small prey like birds, fish, frogs, and insects, and are happy to scavenge. These apex predators have a solo hunting technique that’s a combination of ambush and speedy attack, combined with an exceptionally strong bite per body mass.
Giant Petrel (Macronectes)
Giant petrel are large sea birds (with wingspans up to 2 meters) found around Antarctic and sub-Antarctic islands. At a glance, they look like a stockier, smaller albatross, but are more aggressive, with a large, strong beak able to rip open carcasses to feed on.
Giant petrel are known to kill larger birds – like albatross – by drowning or battering, then eat them, and also hunt squid, fish, and krill. As well as hunting they are happy to scavenge, often being found around seal and whale carcasses.
Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)
Golden eagles are the largest bird of prey in North America, and one of the world’s largest eagles, and dominate their habitats of mountains, hills, cliffs, and coniferous forests as a true apex predator.
There is a limited supply of this prey in the golden eagle’s mountainous habitat, so one breeding pair may defend an area of more than 100 square kilometers.
These predatory birds have excellent eyesight and are able to spot small prey from great heights, after which they dive at incredible speed and use their talons to snatch the prey from the ground. Their diet is mainly grouse and hares, but also each other small mammals, reptiles, and fish.
Jaguar (Panthera Onca)
Jaguars are found in South and Central America, preferring wet lowland habitats, swampy savannas, and tropical rain forests. These big cats are masters of their habitat and known to almost anything they can catch, including deer, crocodiles, snakes, monkeys, deer, sloths, tapirs, turtles, eggs, frogs, and fish.
King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah)
Despite its name, the king cobra is not really related to the Naja (true cobra) genus. Rather, they are members of their own exclusive genus. Found predominantly in South and South-east Asia, they usually prey on other snakes, including rat snakes and small pythons, and sometimes on other vertebrates such as lizards, birds, and rodents.
The king cobra is the world’s largest venomous snake, growing up to 5.5 meters in length. With a 50% fatality rate for untreated human bites, the King cobra is one of the most venomous snakes in the world. A bite from a king cobra is able to kill an Asian elephant in just a few hours.
Brown Bear (Ursus arctos)
Brown bears are found across the forests of North America, Europe, and Asia, often living in close proximity to humans. These bears are among the largest land animals alive today, reaching heights of 2.5 meters when standing on their hind legs, and weigh up to 770 kg. This makes the brown bear one of the largest land predators in the world, and a pure apex predator.
They are omnivorous, happy to hunt or scavenge for a meal. A typical brown bear diet consists of fruit, honey, insects, crabs, salmon, birds, eggs, rodents, squirrels, deer elk, and wild boar.
Saltwater Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus)
The largest – and probably scariest – living reptile is the saltwater crocodile, slightly larger than the Nile crocodile found in Africa (and not to be confused with an alligator). This prehistoric monster can grow to over 7 meters in length and weigh up to half a ton. Their healthy population is distributed around salt and brackish waters in parts of Asia, Australia, and India.
Due to their size (and teeth!), ‘salties’ are apex predators, able to prey on water buffalo, sharks, and pretty much anything else that comes into striking distance. One of the most dangerous animals in the world, the saltwater crocodile is similar to its freshwater cousin in the way it ambushes its prey and drowns it, though often then swallows it whole rather than tearing out chunks.
Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus)
Adult male polar bears are huge carnivores, weighing an average of 700 kg and standing around 3 meters tall on their hind legs. Their size alone makes them a fearsome apex predator, with no natural enemies other than humans.
Polar bears are born on land but spend most of their life on sea ice, hunting seals on the ice, and in the freezing arctic waters. Due to human activity and habitat erosion, the polar bear is an extremely endangered animal.
Lion (Panthera Leo)
The lion is an obligate carnivore, meaning it relies on flesh from animal tissues for its nutritional needs. A lion’s body is unable to produce the amino acids it requires for survival. It must, therefore, eat meat. Lions may consume the odd plant material, oftentimes accidentally, but their systems lack the enzymes to digest or break down plant matter.
Luckily, the lion is an apex predator, meaning it can hunt most animals in its habitat. It also cannot be hunted by animals within its habitat. This is what makes it ‘the king of the jungle.’ In terms of animals causing human deaths, the lion is probably the most dangerous apex predator.
In the wild, lions use cooperative hunting to prey on buffalo, rhino, hippo, younger elephants, zebra, crocodiles, antelopes, wild hogs, and younger giraffes. They also opportunistically feed on smaller game such as hares, birds, lizards, and mice.
Lions need 5kg to 7kg daily of meat daily and are known to feed every 3 to 4 days. They can, however, go without a meal for a week, after which they can eat about 50kg of meat in one seating.
Tiger (Panthera Tigris)
Tigers are the largest members of the big cat family Felidae (not including hybrid big cats bred in captivity). Although close to extinction in places, they live in a variety of habitats – rainforests, grasslands, and swamps – across Asia.
These beautiful animals are at the top of their food chain and have no natural predators other than humans. They are solitary hunters, searching for prey mostly at night with their excellent nocturnal vision. Their diet includes small, medium, and large mammals and reptiles in the form of wild pigs, deer, water buffalo, monkeys, hares, and crocodiles.
Killer Whale (Orcinus orca)
Apex predator – and one of the world’s largest carnivores – orca are also known as killer whales, though they are actually the largest animal in the Delphinidae family of oceanic dolphins. At 8 meters long and 5,400 kg, an average-sized orca can eat up to 230 kg of food a day.
Killer whales are enormous hunters that have no predators themselves, and hunt in family pods, targetting anything from fish to adult whales. Orcas are found in all of the world’s oceans, with some hunting techniques and vocal communication specific to individual pods, and passed on through the generations.
Great White Shark (Carcharodon carcharias)
Perhaps the most feared predator in the world, the great white shark truly is the king of the oceans, and thanks to movies such as Jaws is generally feared – and even hated – by humans.
These sharks are at the top of the food chain, though they may be considered a controversial pick for this list of apex predators as they sometimes fall prey to orcas and other, larger great white sharks. They hunt their prey by targeting them with a small bump, then circling to return to the prey, swimming with their mouths open and ready to attack. Little is known about their social behaviour, though evidence suggests they’re largely solitary animals, residing within territorial waters and feeding areas, but also undertaking long inter-continental voyages.
Snow Leopard (Panthera Unica)
Snow leopards can be found throughout high mountain ranges in Asia, including the Himalayas and the southern Siberian mountains in Russia.
Snow leopards will eat almost anything they can catch, often hunting animals much larger than themselves. Their main prey includes wild sheep and goats, game birds, pikas, and smaller mammals such as hares.
The best place to have a chance of seeing this rare big cat is Hemis National Park, a high altitude park in the Himalayas, and home to around 200 snow leopards – the highest density in any protected area in the world.
Apex predator list
Want to know what animals are apex predators? Here’s a list that includes all apex predators of the world:
- Alligator snapping turtle
- American alligator
- American crocodile
- Brown bear
- Cape wild dog
- Eagle (various species)
- Electric eel
- Giant petril
- Giant otter
- Great horned owl
- King cobra
- Kodiak bear
- Komodo dragon
- Nile crocodile
- Polar bear
- Reticulated python
- Snow leopard
- South polar skua
- Tasmanian devil
Apex predators of the ocean
- Coconut crab
- Giant moray
- Great white shark
- Killer whale
- Saltwater crocodile
- Whale shark
That’s our complete list of apex predators. Any other animals you think should be on here?
Are humans apex predators?
Humans have interacted with apex predators for many centuries to hunt – with wolves and birds of prey in particular. More recently humans have started to interact with apex predators in the fields of ecotourism and rewilding efforts.
Humans, however, are not generally considered to be apex predators because their diets are typically diverse, and (in general) have a relatively low dependence on meat. It’s fair to say that there is some debate over this question, however.
And that’s your lot for our round up of apex predators. Did any surprise you? Or have you had the opportunity to see any of these predators in the wild? Please share your experiences in the comments section below!