What do they look like?
The Jaguar is the largest cat in the Americas. After the tiger and lion it is the third biggest cat in the world. The Jaguar is typically between 150 cm and 180 cm long and its tail measures from 70 cm to 90 cm. Jaguars usually weigh between 68 kg and 136 kg, but their size varies a lot between different regions. In Central America, Jaguars are much smaller than those found in the Pantanal (the world’s largest inland tropical wetland, located in Brazil and parts of Bolivia and Paraguay).
Panthera onca has fur that ranges in colour from pale yellow to reddish brown with black rosette-shaped markings on its neck, body and limbs. Some of the rosettes have black dots in the middle of them. It has black barring at the end of its tail and an off-white belly.
Some Jaguars are melanistic, which means they look almost completely black. They still have black spots which are just visible against the black background. Melanistic Jaguars are sometimes known as “black panthers” and they are more common in forested habitats. (Note that the term “black panther” is also used to describe melanistic leopards.)
Male and female differentiation
Males are larger than females. The largest Jaguars are found in the Brazilian Pantanal, where males weigh an average of 100 kg and females weigh around 76 kg. In Honduras, where the smallest Jaguars are found, males average 57 kg and females 42 kg.
Where are they found?
Historically, Jaguars were found from the southwestern USA (where the occasional individual is still recorded), throughout Central and South America to Argentina. Now they generally persist in remote areas and the majority are found in the Amazon Basin. Researchers estimate that Brazil is home to half of the world population.
What is their habitat?
Jaguars prefer areas of dense tropical lowland forests where there is plenty of cover, although they can also be found in scrubland, reed thickets, coastal forests and swamps. They favour habitats near water.
How do they mate?
Jaguars may have offspring year round, but mating is more common between December and March, meaning that most births take place during the wet season, when there may be more prey available.
Male Jaguars have very large territories which overlap with the smaller territories of multiple females. There may be competition to mate with the female and a dominant male will drive away a smaller or subordinate male.
A pair of mating Jaguars may mate up to 100 times a day. After mating, the female does not tolerate the presence of males especially once the cubs are born.
What is the global population density?
Jaguar density generally ranges from 0.5 to 6.5 individuals per 100 km², and they can reach densities of up to 8.0 or 9.0 individuals per 100 km². Researchers estimate that the highest concentration of Jaguars is in the Amazon Basin.
About their offspring
After a pregnancy of about 90 to 100 days, females give birth to a litter of between 1 and 4 cubs. The cubs are blind at birth and totally dependent on their mother. Cubs nurse for the first 5 to 6 months and then they begin to hunt with their mother. They stay with her for approximately 2 years.
Communication and the senses
Jaguars have a call which is known as a “saw” because it resembles the sound made by a saw cutting wood. When a female Jaguar is in oestrus she may call by making grunting noises to attract potential mates. Males respond with hoarse, guttural vocalisations. Panthera onca roars as a way to warn off territorial and mating competitors.
Are there any subspecies?
Genetic analyses indicate there are no distinct subspecies of Jaguars (Panthera onca), although there is evidence that there are 4 geographic groups: Mexico and Guatemala; southern Central America; northern South America (north of the Amazon River); and southern South America (south of the Amazon River). While these groups are not completely isolated from one another and are not considered to be separate subspecies, there are some differences, for example body size, between the different groups.
When are they active?
Jaguars tend to be most active near dusk and dawn. They choose areas in deep shade, under thick vegetation or in caves to rest during the mid-morning and afternoon.
What do they eat?
Jaguars feed on over 80 different terrestrial prey species including deer, iguanas, armadillos, birds, monkeys, peccaries, capybaras and tapirs; as well as aquatic animals, such as fish, turtles and caimans. In fact, they are opportunistic and will prey on almost anything they come across.
Their tongues have papillae (sharp-pointed bumps) that help scrape meat off bones when they are feeding.
Do they have predators?
Jaguars are top predators in the food chain. There are risks of cub predation by other predators, such as anaconda and caimans, but confirmed cases are rare. There are reported cases of cannibalism and infanticide in Jaguars.
Jaguars are sometimes killed by humans for their skin, paws and teeth, either in direct retaliation for actual or perceived loss of livestock, or for sport.
How long do they live for?
Average lifespan in the wild ranges from 12 to 15 years.
How do they behave?
Jaguars live alone and mark their territories by vocalising, clawing trees and leaving scent marks by defecating and spraying urine. Males have larger home ranges than females, and male home ranges may contain those of 2 or 3 female Jaguars.
Unlike many other cat species, Panthera onca does not avoid water. They are good swimmers and regularly hunt in rivers. They also spend time bathing and wallowing in water.
Jaguars climb trees for safety as well as to hunt; sometimes ambushing their prey from above by jumping from a tree. However, they usually stalk their prey on the ground preferring areas with thick vegetation which offer them cover.
They kill their prey with one strong bite to the back of the skull (most other big cat species kill their prey by biting their neck or throat). Jaguars have very strong canines and jaws and can bite through turtle shells and the thick skin of crocodilians.
Are they endangered?
- Habitat loss and fragmentation due to logging and land clearance for industrial agriculture (mainly for soy, palm oil and cattle ranching).
- Loss of prey, such as the white-lipped peccary (Tayassu pecari).
- Isolation of populations due to habitat loss.
- Poaching for their fur (though demand for Jaguar pelts has declined since the 1970s, some animals may still be killed for this reason).
- Poaching for their body parts (such as teeth) for traditional medicine and ornaments.
- Illegal hunting by ranchers (because of the perceived threat that Jaguars pose to livestock) and sport hunters.
Jaguars are classified as Near Threatened by the IUCN. However, some subpopulations are considered to be Endangered or Critically Endangered.
Evaluated by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Near Threatened (2017).
Did you know?
- The name Jaguar comes from the native Tupi-Guarani word “yaguara”, which means “he who kills with one leap.”
- Jaguars were worshipped as gods in some ancient Mesoamerican civilizations.
- Relative to their body size, Jaguars have the most powerful bite of all the big cats.
- Melanistic Jaguars can be in the same litter as normal colour phase Jaguars.
- Although rarely found in the USA nowadays, the occasional individual is recorded. For example, “El Jefe” was a male Jaguar that was regularly sighted in Arizona between 2011 and 2016.