The jaguar is the largest cat in the Americas and the world’s third largest cat. Considered a “landscape species,” jaguars need more than one habitat for their survival, are critical to many other species’ survival, and have strong cultural significance.
At first glance, it’s easy to confuse the jaguar with its closest relative, the leopard. However, the muscular jaguar has a stockier, more powerful body with shorter limbs, a larger head, and a shorter tail. The jaguar’s spots are also different, forming black rosettes that may include black dots on a tan background. The spotted coat provides wonderful camouflage in the forest. Moreover, jaguars are found only in the Americas, while leopards inhabit Asia and Africa. Their large canine teeth and muscular jaws deliver a bite more powerful than other big cats’.
Although jaguars look most like leopards, they are actually the tiger’s New World counterpart in terms of their behavioral and ecological needs. Mainly nocturnal, jaguars also can be active during the day. They like to cool themselves in pools or rivers, and often rest in trees. Jaguars live alone except for a mother and her cubs or a courting pair. They mark their home ranges with urine, feces, and scrape marks, and roar to warn other jaguars entering their territory.
The jaguar is “near threatened.” Since 1900, jaguars have disappeared from over 50% of their range due to persecution by livestock ranchers, degradation of habitat, and human hunting of the jaguar’s prey. In many countries, jaguars are protected, but enforcement is difficult and jaguar skins are still sold on the black market. Jaguars live about 23 years.
The largest population of jaguars inhabits Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. Jaguar habitat is limited in Mexico, Guatemala, and Argentina, and rare in other parts of Central and South America. Historically, jaguars were found in the southwestern United States, but are now thought to be extinct in that area. Jaguars live in rainforests, swamps, grasslands, scrublands, and lowland semi-deciduous forests. They require water nearby.
Jaguars are carnivorous and opportunistic predators, favoring peccaries, capybaras, agoutis, caimans, turtles, and armadillos. They also eat monkeys, tapirs, deer, anteaters, reptiles, birds, fish, livestock, and certain plants. Jaguars hunt mostly on the ground but often ambush prey from trees or ledges.
Adult size varies depending on subspecies and habitat. However, the average head and body length is about six feet, shoulder height is 27 to 30 inches, and weight is 125 to 250 pounds. Females are 10 to 20% smaller than males. Jaguars may breed year round. Many births occur in the rainy season when more prey is available. Females are pregnant for about three-and-a-half months, giving birth to up to four cubs, which nurse for five to six months and stay with mom for up to two years.