The jaguar is a member of the genus Panthera, just like tigers, lions, and leopards, and they are the only big cat in the Americas. Jaguars, like leopards, may be spotted or melanistic(black), although the spots in both are still evident in daylight. Many confuse the two species, but there are important differences.
Jaguars, the third biggest cat in the world, are stocky, have large heads with powerful jaws, and have rosettes, which are jagged circles with spots inside. They are excellent swimmers and good climbers and often catch their prey in the water. Leopards are generally smaller, sleeker, and their rosettes don’t have spots within the outer circles. They are excellent climbers. Additionally, leopards only exist in Africa and Asia. Scientists now believe there is only one species of jaguars, not several subspecies.
The jaguar’s range extends from northern Mexico to northern Argentina, though an occasional male is spotted in southern Arizona and New Mexico that migrated from northern Mexico. They exist in 18 countries. They are classified by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN Red List of Threatened Species) as Near Threatened, though its status varies by region. They exist in 18 countries.
The last known jaguar in Texas was killed in the 1940s.
The origin of the jaguar’s name comes from yaguareté in Tupi and Guarani, two languages of indigenous people in South America. Its translation means “he who kills in one leap.” Most scientists believe their closest relative is the African lion.
They are between 5 – 6 feet in length and weigh between 80 - 300 pounds. The typical litter size is 1 – 4cubs, and they reach independence at 16 - 24 months. The largest jaguars inhabit the Pantanal and the Llanos of Brazil and Venezuela, respectively. They also have a very diverse diet and, depending upon habitat, consume capybaras, peccaries, caiman, turtles, cattle, and deer, among other prey. Melanistic or black jaguars are not too uncommon and are found in lowland tropical forests. The have no natural predators.
Like other cats which kill their prey with a throat bite, they also dispatch their prey with a crushing bite to the skull. Of all big cats, they have the strongest bite force.
Jaguars, like other wild felines, face several threats to their survival: loss or fragmentation of habitat, retaliatory killing by ranchers, and loss of prey species. There is increasing evidence that jaguar body parts are now being used in traditional Chinese medicine.
On a brighter note, however, efforts are underway to provide natural corridors for these amazing animals throughout their range to allow them access to other jaguars, prey, and habitat. Engaging with local communities to increase human acceptance by reducing conflicts with jaguars is ongoing and is another step in improving coexistence between humans and cats.