(Panthera onca)


Location: Historic range was southwestern United States to Argentina. Current range includes Mexico and Central and Southern America, as far south as Patagonia. 


Habitat: Dense jungles, reed thickets, shoreline forests and open country, with good cover for hunting and a good water source


Jaguars are the largest cats in the Americas.  Adults weigh on average 80 to 250 pounds, although there have been records of males weighing 347 pounds.  They measure about 30 inches at the shoulder and about 6 feet long plus a 30-inch tail.  The coat is a tawny-yellow with spots on the head, neck and legs and rosettes on the rest of the body.  Both the jaguar and leopard are known to have melanistic, or black, individuals.  These individuals also have the spots and rosettes which are more visible in bright light.


Although jaguars seem to be identical to leopards, there are several ways to distinguish between the two.  The coat of the jaguar has larger rosettes in smaller numbers.  The rosettes are usually darker, have thicker lines and enclose smaller spots.  Leopard rosettes are usually smaller, more faint and more abundant.  The build of a jaguar is overall more muscular than the lepoard.  The head of the jaguar is more square and the legs are more stocky than those of the leopard. 


Jaguars are one of the most rare of the big cats and very difficult to study in the wild, mostly due to their highly secretive, solitary life style.  Most of what we know has been learned through studies on animals in captivity.  They are mainly nocturnal hunters, hunting mostly on the ground. However, they will occasionally sit in a tree to ambush their prey.  They will sometimes drag their prey up into a tree to protect it from scavengers.  They prey upon most anything in their path including monkeys, deer, pigs, sloths, fish, small alligators and even livestock.  Unlike most large cats, they do not kill their prey by biting at the neck.  Instead they have amazingly powerful jaws that allow them to kill their prey with one bite through the temporal bones of the skull.  South American Indians call the jaguar ‘yaguara’, meaning ‘a beast that kills its prey with one bound’.  They are excellent swimmers and love the water.  On hot days they like to swim or rest in streams.  Jaguars and tigers are the only two cats that like to be in water.  It has been said that the jaguar is the only big cat that does not roar, but the jaguar has an array of vocalizations including mews, grunts and a deep, repetitive “coughing” roar.


In Central and South America the jaguar is seen by its people in the same way that the lion is seen by the people of Europe and Africa.  It is a symbol of strength and power.  During the Mayan civilization, the jaguar was thought to communicate between the living and the dead, as well as protect the royal household.  The Mayan saw these powerful cats as their companions in the spiritual world.  The Aztec civilization also had the same image of the jaguar as the representative of the ruler and as a warrior.


The jaguar is listed under Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Appendix I. This means that all international trade in jaguars or their parts is prohibited.  The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists jaguars as lower risk, near-threatened.  US Fish & Wildlife Service lists jaguars as endangered.  Jaguars are a part of a Species Survival Plan (SSP) with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).  Several things have contributed to their status including the large amount of deforestation for mining and timber and being hunted in order to protect livestock.  But the largest reason is that their fur has been so demanded in the fur trade.  Although the jaguar was put on the endangered species list in the 1970’s, illegal trade and poaching has been a major problem.


Jaguar photo is courtesy of USFWS.


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Belize Zoo.  “Jaguar: Panthera onca”. “Jaguar”.


Houston Zoo.  “Jaguar”.;_ID=5


Jaguar Species Survival Plan.  “Jaguar”.


Natural History Museum of Las Angeles County.  “Jaguar: Panthera onca”.


Springstubbe, K. 2002. "Panthera onca" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed March 22, 2004 at


The World Conservation Union – IUCN.  Cat Specialist Group.  “Jaguar: Panthera onca”.


ThinkQuest – The Wild Habitat.  “Jaguar:  Panthera onca”.


Woodland Park Zoo.  “Jaguar:  Panthera onca”.


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