Species Facts: The Jaguar

Imagine a leopard. Now make it a little bigger, shorten the legs a bit, and pack even more muscle onto that strong frame. Increase its head size and give it the most powerful jaws of any big cat.

This is a jaguar – the New World’s only big cat.

Read on for more facts about this interesting member of the big-cat lineage.

Who’s this?

Luckily, leopards aren’t native to the Americas.  The resemblance between jaguars and leopards is close enough to make it very hard to tell the two apart, if they stood side by side.

If you’re ever unlucky enough to encounter a leopard and jaguar side by side, while backing away be sure to check out the spots. Is there a dark dot in the middle of some of them?

That’s the jaguar. Leopards don’t have these central dots. (Cat Specialist Group; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002, 2014)

Look for jaguars near water in northern South America – especially the Amazon rainforest – and in parts of Central America and Mexico. (Caso and others; Cat Specialist Group; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002, 2014)

There have been some sightings recently in Arizona, but conservationists consider those cats wanderers only, not yet part of an established US population.

What does it look like?

As a species, jaguars are between 3.5 and 5.5 feet long, with the tail adding another foot or two to the length. They weigh anywhere between 80 and 330 pounds. (Cat Specialist Group)

Yes, these cats vary in size quite a bit. The smallest ones live in Central America and Amazonia, while the biggest roam Brazil’s Pantanal and Venzuela’s Llanos. (Cat Specialist Group; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002, 2014)

Those rich flatlands, particularly the Pantanal, are also prime ranching areas, and a large jaguar can easily take down a bull. There is a lot of human/jaguar conflict here. (See Cavalcanti and others for details)

How friendly/dangerous is it?

Surprisingly, there are very few known jaguar attacks on humans. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2014) The main problem seems to be killing livestock.

Some experts speculate that other big cats evolved with us, while jaguars first met humans fairly recently in geologic terms. Perhaps they just haven’t figured us out yet.  (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2014)

The fact that almost 90% of the present jaguar range is in Amazonia (Cat Specialist Group), where relatively few people live, probably has something to do with it, too.

Those natives, besides still making the jaguar part of their mythology (Cavalcanti and others), may also actively avoid the cat.

After all, it’s the only member of the cat family known to sometimes kill its prey with a skull bite. Jaguars also trip larger prey to break their necks or flat-out bludgeon smaller prey to death with a paw.  (Cat Specialist Group)

A good cat to avoid in the wild, wherever possible.

The Cool Factor:

The jaguar is a lithe, beautiful embodiment of Power.

The great civilizations of Central and South America admired the jaguar and wore its skin to gain status and access to that power.

Today, we use its image on a variety of things we admire – among them, vehicles, flags, currency – to symbolize status, wealth, and power.

Indeed, in some ways, when it comes to jaguars, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Featured image: Stanvpetersen at Pixabay.  Public domain.



Cat Specialist Group: The jaguar. http://www.catsg.org/index.php?id=95 Last accessed September 6, 2017.

Caso, A.; Lopez-Gonzalez, C.; Payan, E.; Eizirik, E.; and others. 2008. Panthera onca. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2008:3.T15953A5327466.

Cavalcanti, S. M. C.; Marchini, S.; Zimmermann, A.; Gese, E. M.; and Macdonald, D. W. 2010. Jaguars, livestock, and people in Brazil: reallities and perceptions behind the conflict, in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, ed. Macdonald, D. W., and Loveridge, A. J., 383-402. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Eizirik, E.; Kim, J-H.; Menotti-Raymond, M.; Crawshaw, Jr., P. G.; and others. 2001. Phylogeography, population history and conservation genetics of jaguars (Panthera onca, Mammalia, Felidae). Molecular Ecology. 10:65-79.

Hemmer, H.; Kahlke, R-D.; and Vekua, A. K. 2001. The jaguar – Panthera onca gombaszoegensis (Kretzoi, 1938) (Carnivora: Felidae) in the late Lower Pleistocene of Akhalkalaki (South Georgia; Transcaucasia) and its evolutionary and ecological significance. Geobios. 34(4):475-486.

Sunquist, F. and Sunquist, M. 2002. Wild cats of the world. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

—. 2014. The Wild Cat Book. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

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