When most people think of big cats, they picture Africa or Asia, but the South American jaguar is the third largest feline in the world, behind only the tiger and lion. While people often use the term jaguar and leopard interchangeably, they are actually two different but closely related species. Jaguars are the only species from the genus Panthera to survive in the New World (North and South America) and their ancestors were believed to have emigrated from Asia. Despite geographical proximity and a superficial likeness, cougars are not related to jaguars and are in a different genus. Jaguars, like lions, tigers, and leopards, are considered 'big cats' and one of the main things that sets them apart is the ability to roar, however some definitions of big cats allows for non-roaring species such as cougars, clouded leopards, and cheetahs simply for their size.
Scientific & Common Names
Kingdom - Animalia
Phylum - Chordata
Class - Mammalia
Order - Carnivora
Family - Felidae
Genus - Panthera
Species - P. onca
Common Names - Jaguar, Black Panther (black variant)
The largest cat found in the Americas and the third largest cat in the world, jaguars hold an iconic place in culture. They are often thought of as black, but that is a variant of the more standard tawny and spotted coloration. One of the ways to tell them apart from leopards is that their spots have a black edge and brown or black spots within the rosette, where the leopard's spots are solid. Even the near-black melanistic individuals still have the spots, which are visible in the right lighting. jaguars have the strongest bite of all cats, with at least 1350 pounds per square inch (psi), which is 300 more than a tiger and over twice that of a lion. Some studies have put their bite strength at 2000psi, which would make it the strongest bite of any mammal. While there have been individuals who have weighed more than 300 pounds, the standard is between 80-220 with females being considerably smaller than males. Jaguars are stockier and heavier bodied than the smaller leopard with a large head and shorter limbs. They can live over two decades in captivity and about 15 years in the wild.
Females begin breeding at the age of two and breeding can occur any time during the year. The solitary cats come together only for breeding and then they separate, with the females assuming full responsibility for the young. After a three month gestation females give birth to 1-4 cubs. The cubs stop nursing at three months but do not accompany their mother on hunts for several more months, staying in the safety of the den. They will then stay with their mother for up to two years before leaving to claim their own territory.
Like tigers, jaguars are one of the few cats that are comfortable in water. They are solitary and elusive, slipping in and out of the shadows, mostly unseen. Jaguars are bold hunters and will pursue prey much larger than they are. Unlike most cats who make the kill by crushing the windpipe and suffocating their prey, jaguars bite directly through the skull. Their incredible bite strength is also useful when hunting turtles and caiman. The territories of females may overlap each other and can be found within the larger territories that males claim, but male territories never overlap. Roaring and posturing at a rival are the preferred methods to defend a territory, but a male will resort to violence if bravado fails.
The earliest known fossil of a big cat was found in Tibet and is between 4-6 million years old. This was believed to be the ancestor of all modern big cats. About 4 million years ago, the ancestor of the tiger and snow leopard diverged and soon after the ancestor of the lion, leopard, and jaguar did as well. The jaguar then evolved on its own after its ancestor immigrated to North America from Asia about two million years ago.
Once found all across South America, Central America, and well into the western North American continent, they are now found only in isolated pockets outside of the Amazon Basin. Loss of habitat and prey are large factors in their drop in numbers, but sport hunting and persecution by ranchers also have a serious impact on their population. They are currently listed as Near Threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). They were once hunted extensively for their pelts with an estimated 18,000 killed each year but in 1973 the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) put a stop to much of the trade.
A Field Guide to the Mammals of Central America and Southeast Mexico by Fiona A. Reid