Large 'apex' predators influence ecosystems in profound ways, by limiting the density of their prey and controlling smaller 'mesopredators'. The loss of apex predators from much of their range has lead to a global outbreak of mesopredators, a process known as 'mesopredator release' that increases predation pressure and diminishes biodiversity. While the classifications apex- and meso-predator are fundamental to current ecological thinking, their definition has remained ambiguous. Trophic cascades theory has shown the importance of predation as a limit to population size for a variety of taxa (top-down control). The largest of predators however are unlikely to be limited in this fashion, and their densities are commonly assumed to be determined by the availability of their prey (bottom-up control). However, bottom-up regulation of apex predators is contradicted by many studies, particularly of non-hunted populations. We offer an alternative view that apex predators are distinguishable by a capacity to limit their own population densities (self-regulation). We tested this idea using a set of life-history traits that could contribute to self-regulation in the Carnivora, and found that an upper limit body mass of 34 kg (corresponding with an average mass of 13-16 kg) marks a transition between extrinsically- and self-regulated carnivores. Small carnivores share fast reproductive rates and development and higher densities. Large carnivores share slow reproductive rates and development, extended parental care, sparsely populated territories, and a propensity towards infanticide, reproductive suppression, alloparental care and cooperative hunting. We discuss how the expression of traits that contribute to self-regulation (e.g. reproductive suppression) depends on social stability, and highlight the importance of studying predator-prey dynamics in the absence of predator persecution. Self-regulation in large carnivores may ensure that the largest and the fiercest do not overexploit their resources.