Another big spotted cat? Yes!
In the Americas, jaguars are the big cat.
And a great big kitty it is.
Four distinct jaguar populations have been identified genetically:
- Mexico and Guatemala
- Southern Central America
- South America north of the Amazon River
- South America south of the Amazon
The boffins are still debating whether these are different enough from one another to be considered separate subspecies. As of this writing, all jaguars are simply P. onca.
These are from the Cat Specialist Group (CSG) website unless otherwise noted.
- Weight: 80 to a little over 300 pounds. Jaguar size varies according to location, with the biggest ones near the Equator; size gradually decreases as the cat ranges farther north and south. (CSG; Turner and Antón)
- Body length: 43 to 67 inches.
- Tail length: 17 to 32 inches.
- Coat: Background fur color is pale yellow to tawny brown, with white fur on the underparts. Black jaguars are relatively common, too (though the gene mutation responsible is different from the one that turns some leopards black). As for the rosettes, the best way to tell jaguars and leopards apart is to look for at least one small spot inside the rosette — jaguars have them, leopards usually don’t. Rosettes are also bigger on a jaguar, and I think these New World cats also appear to have more spots on their belly and legs, at least in images.
- Vocals: In the literature, the jaguar’s roar is described as being like thunder, but all the YouTube videos I checked showed jaguars “sawing” like a leopard.
In the unlikely event that you’re camping in Latin America and hear incredibly loud purring outside the tent, it’s a puma. Jaguars and pumas do share the same range, but because they’re big cats, jaguars can’t purr.
Sawing shows who owns this territory and also can attract mates. Sunquist and Sunquist report that as many as four jaguars at a time have been heard calling back and forth. Per a study quoted by Kitchener et al. (2010), sonograms show that jaguars and leopards only do part of the full roaring sequence shown by lions.
- Average litter size: 1 to 4 cubs, usually 2 (Sunquist and Sunquist)
- Average life span: Up to 26 years (probably in captivity; longevity in the wild isn’t well known, per Sunquist and Sunquist).
Features unique to this cat:
- Besides being the only big cat in the New World, jaguars are also the largest Latin American carnivore.
- In proportion to the body, a jaguar’s head is enormous, compared to other cats. This allows for larger jaw muscles that give jaguars a more powerful bite than any of the other big cats. Their fangs are sturdier, too — a jaguar can handle crocodilians, as we’ll see later in this post, and also break up a turtle’s shell.
- Jaguars are the heaviest cat that routinely and skillfully climbs trees and other heights.
- Turner and Antón — experts in feline anatomy — write that modern jaguars may have the most robust build of ALL known cats, including every sabercat except Smilodon and a few species of Megantereon.
- Like other cats, jaguars may kill their prey either with a bite to the back of the neck or with a suffocating throat bite. But they’re the only big cat to regular use a piercing skull bite to dispatch capybaras (large rodents) and other animals. (Cat Specialist Group)
Where found in the wild:
Historically, jaguars have ranged from the southern United States down to Patagonia. (Eizirik et al., 2001)
Today, a few are found as far north as Arizona, but most inhabit Mexico, Central America, and South America down to the Rio Negro in Argentina.
Their main stronghold is in Amazonia. Cats at the extreme northern edge of the range are probably wanderers, not part of a breeding population.
Jaguars like dense cover. It doesn’t have to be a rainforest. Near a source of water, jaguars will thrive even in dry thornscrub.
Closest cat-family relatives:
As we saw with the leopard, there isn’t a consensus yet among molecular biologists on just exactly how lions, leopards, and jaguars are related.
Everyone agrees that these three species are closer to one another than they are to the other two big cats — snow leopards and tigers.
But some link leopards to lions and put jaguars at a slight distance, while others reverse this, saying that jaguars are more closely related to lions and leopards should be considered the sister-group.
How jaguars hunt and live:
Jaguars can climb and swim well, but they are considered terrestrial hunters.
They coexist with pumas throughout their range and share a taste for the same prey, but the two cats tend to hunt at different times. Pumas also may go for smaller prey than jaguars do, and they seem to prefer more open habitats.
As generalists, jaguars will eat almost any food they come upon, from turtle eggs up to thousand-pound cows.
They prefer mammals, particularly hoofed ones. In Belize, that’s often peccaries, though jaguars also like armadillos. In Brazil, they have a taste for caiman, in addition to mammals like the capybara and (since many ranches are in prime jaguar country) cattle.
What’s a caiman?
Glad you asked. This is how a jaguar stalks and catches one:
The jaguar’s teeth penetrated that crocodililan armor as well as the skull in one quick bite. And then it lugged the whole carcass away. That’s one powerful set of jaws!
How they reproduce:
Near the Equator, cubs are born any time of year. This is more seasonal farther away from equatorial regions.
After a 3- to 4-month pregnancy, woolly spotted cubs are born, weighing 1-1/2 to 2 pounds each. Their eyes open during the first two weeks of life, and they’ll put on almost 2 ounces per day over the next 7 weeks.
Then, at around 2 months of age, the cubs are ready for solid food and start accompanying Mom to kills (though they will also suckle for a while longer).
Not much is known about how jaguars mature and achieve independence in the wild. Probably, like most cats, the females settle down near Mom, as long as there is enough prey in the area to support everybody, while males disperse farther away from the den.
Interactions with people:
Jaguar imagery played a big role in early Mesoamerican culture:
Nowadays jaguar dances are still popular in south central Mexico (and probably elsewhere).
In brief, the jaguar is seemingly invincible, but it’s eventually shot and killed by hunters and everybody celebrates its death.
What makes it sad is that jaguars, once so numerous in Mexico, are becoming rarer and rarer there.
Correlation isn’t the same as causation. After all, jaguar populations were hit hard by the fur trade until public opinion in many countries turned against the fashion. And the cats’ habitat is being broken up or degraded, while hunters take game that jaguars depend on for food.
There are many complex reasons for this big cat’s decline.
But in a study in Brazil, Cavalcanti et al. report that there also seems to be a cultural component involved in killing jaguars here (usually illegally), even taking into account retaliation killing for cattle attacks and, in one widely publicized case in 2008, an unprovoked attack on a human being.
There is conflict here and probably also some traditional support for jaguar hunting, no matter what the legal consequences might be.
Conservation of endangered big cats is always difficult. Both people and jaguars have legitimate rights that must all be respected — somehow.
Yes, as Near Threatened.
Jaguars have disappeared from New Mexico, Texas, Uruguay and El Salvador, and they are almost extinct in Mexico and the Argentinian pampas.
Nevertheless, this species has a better overall picture than many other wild cats. According to the red-listing agency, jaguars in the Amazon rainforest, some areas in the Gran Chaco, and parts of Colombia and Central America have good chances for survival.
This region encompasses about 70% of the cat’s present range.
However, jaguar populations elsewhere, particularly in some of the non-Amazonia places we looked at recently, east of the Andes, aren’t as well off.
Since isolated populations are at higher risk of extinction, conservationists are trying to establish a network of corridors, like this one in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, for jaguars and other wildlife to travel through.
Conservationists are putting together a Jaguar Corridor Initiative.
When it’s complete, these big cats will once again be able to roam freely among protected areas in Central America and northern South America.
Scientists study jaguar history using both fossils and molecular genetic data. Not surprisingly, these two very different data sources provide some conflicting information.
The oldest known jaguar fossils in North America, from Nebraska and Washington, are about 850,000 years old. That puts them here in the early Pleistocene epoch.
But some DNA studies suggest that jaguars go back even farther, to the Pliocene over a million years ago (Johnson et al.), while others find a much younger age — just 280,000 to 510,000 years ago. (Eizirik et al.)
Yes, that’s younger than the fossil age. As far as I can tell, no one yet has a good explanation for it, but they’re still working on it.
The general consensus is that jaguars and other cats did travel into the New World through the Bering land bridge at some point when global sea level was lower than it is today.
Experts also agree that modern jaguars are related to the now-extinct European jaguar, Panthera gombaszoegensis.
Of note, lions accompanied jaguars into North America, but they went extinct here while jaguars survived.
Genetic studies have shown that jaguars have some hybridization in their history that has improved jaguar vision. (Figueiró et al.)
The details are arcane, but in plain English, at some point during the Pleistocene, lions and jaguars in North America probably fooled around (Li et al.), to the jaguar’s eventual benefit.
And this brings us to the close, with an adorable view of a tame jaguar and puma, playing.
Featured image: Tambako The Jaguar, CC BY-ND 2.0
Cat Specialist Group. 2019. Jaguar. http://www.catsg.org/index.php?id=95 Last accessed August 25, 2019.
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