The jaguar is a big cat, a feline in the Panthera genus, and is the only extant Panthera species native to
the Americas. The jaguar is the third-largest feline after the tiger and the lion, and the largest in the
Americas. The jaguar's present range extends from Southwestern United States and Mexico across much of Central
America and south to Paraguay and northern Argentina. Apart from a known and possibly breeding population in
Arizona (southeast of Tucson) and the bootheel of New Mexico, the cat has largely been extirpated from the
United States since the early 20th century.
This spotted cat most closely resembles the leopard physically, although it is usually larger and of sturdier
build and its behavioral and habitat characteristics are closer to those of the tiger. While dense rainforest
is its preferred habitat, the jaguar will range across a variety of forested and open terrains. Its preferred
habitats are usually swamps and wooded regions, but jaguars also live in scrublands and deserts. The jaguar is
notable, along with the tiger, as a feline that enjoys swimming. The jaguar is largely a solitary,
opportunistic, stalk-and-ambush predator at the top of the food chain (an apex predator). It is a keystone
species, playing an important role in stabilizing ecosystems and regulating the populations of the animals it
hunts. The jaguar has an exceptionally powerful bite, even relative to the other big cats. This allows it to
pierce the shells of armored reptiles and to employ an unusual killing method: it bites directly through the
skull of prey between the ears to deliver a fatal bite to the brain.
The jaguar is a near threatened species and its numbers are declining. Threats include loss and fragmentation
of habitat. While international trade in jaguars or their parts is prohibited, the cat is still frequently
killed by humans, particularly in conflicts with ranchers and farmers in South America. Although reduced, its
range remains large. Given its historical distribution, the jaguar has featured prominently in the mythology
of numerous indigenous American cultures, including those of the Maya and Aztec.
The last taxonomic delineation of the jaguar subspecies was performed by Pocock in 1939. Based on geographic
origins and skull morphology, he recognized eight subspecies. However, he did not have access to sufficient
specimens to critically evaluate all subspecies, and he expressed doubt about the status of several. Later
consideration of his work suggested only three subspecies should be recognized.
Recent studies have also failed to find evidence for well-defined subspecies, which are no longer recognized.
Larson (1997) studied the morphological variation in the jaguar and showed there is clinal north-south
variation, but also the differentiation within the supposed subspecies is larger than that between them, and
thus does not warrant subspecies subdivision. A genetic study by Eizirik and coworkers in 2001 confirmed the
absence of a clear geographical subspecies structure, although they found that major geographical barriers,
such as the Amazon River, limited the exchange of genes between the different populations. A subsequent, more
detailed study confirmed the predicted population structure within the Colombian jaguars.
The jaguar, a compact and well-muscled animal, is the largest cat in the New World and the largest carnivorous
mammal in Central and South America. Size and weight vary considerably: weights are normally in the range of
56-96 kg (124-211 lb). Larger males have been recorded to weigh as much as 158 kg (348 lb) (roughly matching
a tigress or lioness; however note this animal was weighed with a full stomach). The smallest females have
low weights of 36 kg (79 lb). Females are typically 10-20 percent smaller than males. The length, from the nose
to the base of the tail, of the cats varies from 1.12 to 1.85 m (3.7 to 6.1 ft). Their tails are the shortest
of any big cat, at 45 to 75 cm (18 to 30 in) in length. Their legs are also short, considerably shorter when
compared to a small tiger or lion in a similar weight range, but are thick and powerful. The jaguar stands 63
to 76 cm (25 to 30 in) tall at the shoulders. Compared to the similarly colored Old World leopard, the jaguar
is bigger, heavier and relatively stocky in build.
Further variations in size have been observed across regions and habitats, with size tending to increase from
the north to south. A study of the jaguar in the Chamela-Cuixmala Biosphere Reserve on the Mexican Pacific
coast, showed ranges of just about 50 kg (110 lb), about the size of a female cougar. Jaguars in Venezuela or
Brazil are much larger with average weights of about 95 kg (220 lb) in males and of about 56 kilograms
(123 lb) to 78 kilograms (172 lb) in females. In the Brazilian Pantanal, weights of 136 kilograms (300 lb) or
more are not uncommon in old males, with the highest recorded weight, for a Jaguar weighed on an empty
stomach being 148 kilograms (326 lb). Forest jaguars are frequently darker and considerably smaller than those
found in open areas (the Pantanal is an open wetland basin), possibly due to the smaller numbers of large,
herbivorous prey in forest areas.
A short and stocky limb structure makes the jaguar adept at climbing, crawling, and swimming. The head is
robust and the jaw extremely powerful, it has the third highest bite force of all felids, after the lion and
tiger. A 100 kg (220 lb) jaguar can bite with a force of 503.57 kgf (1110 lbf) at canine teeth and 705.79 kgf
(1556 lbf) at carnassial notch. This strength adaptation allows the jaguar to pierce turtle shells. A
comparative study of bite force adjusted for body size ranked it as the top felid, alongside the clouded
leopard and ahead of the lion and tiger. It has been reported that "an individual jaguar can drag an 800
lb (360 kg) bull 25 ft (7.6 m) in its jaws and pulverize the heaviest bones". The jaguar hunts wild animals
weighing up to 300 kg (660 lb) in dense jungle, and its short and sturdy physique is thus an adaptation to
its prey and environment.
The base coat of the jaguar is generally a tawny yellow, but can range to reddish-brown and black, for most
of the body. However, the ventral areas are white. The cat is covered in rosettes for camouflage in the
dappled light of its forest habitat. The spots vary over individual coats and between individual jaguars:
rosettes may include one or several dots, and the shapes of the dots vary. The spots on the head and neck
are generally solid, as are those on the tail, where they may merge to form a band.
While the jaguar closely resembles the leopard, it is sturdier and heavier, and the two animals can be
distinguished by their rosettes: the rosettes on a jaguar's coat are larger, fewer in number, usually
darker, and have thicker lines and small spots in the middle that the leopard lacks. Jaguars also have
rounder heads and shorter, stockier limbs compared to leopards.
Color morphism occurs in the species. A near-black melanistic form occurs regularly. Jaguars with melanism
appear entirely black, although their spots are still visible on close examination.
The black morph is less common than the spotted form but, at about six percent of the population, it is
several orders of magnitude above the mutation rate. Hence, it is being supported by selection. Some
evidence indicates the melanism allele is dominant. The black form may be an example of heterozygote advantage;
breeding in captivity is not yet conclusive on this.
Melanistic jaguars are informally known as black panthers, but (as with all forms of polymorphism) they do not
form a separate species.
Extremely rare albino individuals, sometimes called white panthers, also occur among jaguars, as with the other
big cats. As usual with albinos in the wild, selection keeps the frequency close to the rate of mutation.
Reproduction and life cycle
Jaguar females reach sexual maturity at about two years of age, and males at three or four. The cat is believed
to mate throughout the year in the wild, although births may increase when prey is plentiful. Research on
captive male jaguars supports the year-round mating hypothesis, with no seasonal variation in semen traits and
ejaculatory quality; low reproductive success has also been observed in captivity. Female estrus is 6-17 days
out of a full 37-day cycle, and females will advertise fertility with urinary scent marks and increased
vocalization.[ Both sexes will range more widely than usual during courtship.
Pairs separate after mating, and females provide all parenting. The gestation period lasts 93-105 days;
females give birth to up to four cubs, and most commonly to two. The mother will not tolerate the presence
of males after the birth of cubs, given a risk of infanticide; this behavior is also found in the tiger.
The young are born blind, gaining sight after two weeks. Cubs are weaned at three months, but remain in the
birth den for six months before leaving to accompany their mother on hunts. They will continue in their
mother's company for one to two years before leaving to establish a territory for themselves. Young
males are at first nomadic, jostling with their older counterparts until they succeed in claiming a
territory. Typical lifespan in the wild is estimated at around 12-15 years; in captivity, the jaguar lives
up to 23 years, placing it among the longest-lived cats.
Like most cats, the jaguar is solitary outside mother–cub groups. Adults generally meet only to court and mate
(though limited noncourting socialization has been observed anecdotally) and carve out large territories for
themselves. Female territories, which range from 25 to 40 km2 in size, may overlap, but the animals generally
avoid one another. Male ranges cover roughly twice as much area, varying in size with the availability of
game and space, and do not overlap. The territory of a male can contain those of several females. The jaguar
uses scrape marks, urine, and feces to mark its territory.
Like the other big cats, the jaguar is capable of roaring and does so to warn territorial and mating
competitors away; intensive bouts of counter-calling between individuals have been observed in the wild.
Their roar often resembles a repetitive cough, and they may also vocalize mews and grunts. Mating fights
between males occur, but are rare, and aggression avoidance behavior has been observed in the wild.
When it occurs, conflict is typically over territory: a male's range may encompass that of two or three
females, and he will not tolerate intrusions by other adult males.
The jaguar is often described as nocturnal, but is more specifically crepuscular (peak activity around dawn
and dusk). Both sexes hunt, but males travel farther each day than females, befitting their larger territories.
The jaguar may hunt during the day if game is available and is a relatively energetic feline, spending as
much as 50-60 percent of its time active. The jaguar's elusive nature and the inaccessibility of much of its
preferred habitat make it a difficult animal to sight, let alone study.
Hunting and diet
Like all cats, the jaguar is an obligate carnivore, feeding only on meat. It is an opportunistic hunter and its
diet encompasses at least 87 species. The jaguar can take virtually any terrestrial or riparian vertebrate
found in Central or South America, with a preference for large prey. The jaguar is more of a dietary generalist
than its Old World cousins: the American tropics have a high diversity of small animals but relatively low
populations and diversity of the large ungulates which this genus favors. They regularly take adult caimans,
deer, capybaras, tapirs, peccaries, dogs, zorros, and sometimes even anacondas. However, the cat will eat any
small species that can be caught, including frogs, mice, birds (mainly ground-based species such as cracids),
fish, sloths, monkeys, and turtles; a study conducted in Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize, for
example, revealed that the diets of jaguars there consisted primarily of armadillos and pacas. Some jaguars
will also take domestic livestock. El Jefe, the only jaguar currently living within the territory of the
United States, has also been found to kill and eat American black bears, as deduced from hairs found within
his scats and the partly consumed carcass of a black bear sow with the distinctive puncture marks to the
skull left by jaguars. This indicates that jaguars might have once preyed on black bears when the species was
still present in the area. Spectacled bears are also known to avoid jaguars, possibly because they may
constitute occasional prey items.
There is evidence that jaguars in the wild consume the roots of Banisteriopsis caapi.
While the jaguar often employs the deep throat-bite and suffocation technique typical among Panthera, it
sometimes uses a killing method unique amongst cats: it pierces directly through the temporal bones of the
skull between the ears of prey (especially the capybara) with its canine teeth, piercing the brain. This may
be an adaptation to "cracking open" turtle shells; following the late Pleistocene extinctions, armored
reptiles such as turtles would have formed an abundant prey base for the jaguar. The skull bite is employed
with mammals in particular; with reptiles such as the caiman, the jaguar may leap onto the back of the prey
and sever the cervical vertebrae, immobilizing the target. When attacking sea turtles, including the huge
Leatherback sea turtle which weighs about 385 kg (849 lb) on average, as they try to nest on beaches, the
jaguar will bite at the head, often beheading the prey, before dragging it off to eat. Reportedly, while
hunting horses, a jaguar may leap onto their back, place one paw on the muzzle and another on the nape and
then twist, dislocating the neck. Local people have anecdotally reported that when hunting a pair of horses
bound together, the jaguar will kill one horse and then drag it while the other horse, still living, is
dragged in their wake. With prey such as smaller dogs, a paw swipe to the skull may be sufficient to kill it.
The jaguar is a stalk-and-ambush rather than a chase predator. The cat will walk slowly down forest paths,
listening for and stalking prey before rushing or ambushing. The jaguar attacks from cover and usually
from a target's blind spot with a quick pounce; the species' ambushing abilities are considered nearly
peerless in the animal kingdom by both indigenous people and field researchers, and are probably a product of
its role as an apex predator in several different environments. The ambush may include leaping into water
after prey, as a jaguar is quite capable of carrying a large kill while swimming; its strength is such that
carcasses as large as a heifer can be hauled up a tree to avoid flood levels.
On killing prey, the jaguar will drag the carcass to a thicket or other secluded spot. It begins eating at the
neck and chest, rather than the midsection. The heart and lungs are consumed, followed by the shoulders.
The daily food requirement of a 34 kg (75 lb) animal, at the extreme low end of the species' weight range,
has been estimated at 1.4 kg (3.1 lb). For captive animals in the 50-60 kg (110-130 lb) range, more than 2 kg
(4.4 lb) of meat daily are recommended. In the wild, consumption is naturally more erratic; wild cats expend
considerable energy in the capture and kill of prey, and they may consume up to 25 kg (55 lb) of meat at one
feeding, followed by periods of famine. Unlike all other Panthera species, jaguars very rarely attack humans.
However, jaguar attacks appear to be on the rise with increased human encroachment on their habitat and a
decrease in prey populations. Sometimes jaguars in captivity attack zookeepers
Distribution and habitat
The jaguar has been an American cat since crossing the Bering Land Bridge during the Pleistocene epoch; the
immediate ancestor of modern animals is Panthera onca augusta, which was larger than the contemporary cat.
Its present range extends from Mexico, through Central America and into South America, including much of
Amazonian Brazil. The countries included in this range are Argentina, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia,
Costa Rica (particularly on the Osa Peninsula), Ecuador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico,
Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, the United States and Venezuela. The jaguar is now extinct in
El Salvador and Uruguay. It occurs in the 400 km² Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize, the 5,300 km²
Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve in Mexico, the approximately 15,000 km2 Manú National Park in Peru, the
approximately 26,000 km2 Xingu National Park in Brazil, and numerous other reserves throughout its range.
The inclusion of the United States in the list is based on occasional sightings in the southwest, particularly
in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. In the early 20th century, the jaguar's range extended as far north as the
Grand Canyon, and as far west as Southern California. The jaguar is a protected species in the United States
under the Endangered Species Act, which has stopped the shooting of the animal for its pelt. In 1996 and
from 2004 on, wildlife officials in Arizona photographed and documented jaguars in the southern part of the
state. Between 2004 and 2007, two or three jaguars have been reported by researchers around Buenos Aires
National Wildlife Refuge in southern Arizona. One of them, called 'Macho B', had been previously photographed
in 1996 in the area. For any permanent population in the USA to thrive, protection from killing, an
adequate prey base, and connectivity with Mexican populations are essential. In February 2009, a 53.5 kg
(118 lb) jaguar was caught, radio-collared and released in an area southwest of Tucson, Arizona; this is
farther north than had previously been expected and represents a sign there may be a permanent breeding
population of jaguars within southern Arizona. The animal was later confirmed to be indeed the same male
individual ('Macho B') that was photographed in 2004. On 2 March 2009, Macho B was recaptured and euthanized
after he was found to be suffering from kidney failure; the animal was thought to be 16 years old, older than
any known wild jaguar.
Completion of the United States-Mexico barrier as currently proposed will reduce the viability of any
population currently residing in the United States, by reducing gene flow with Mexican populations, and
prevent any further northward expansion for the species.
The historic range of the species included much of the southern half of the United States, and in the south
extended much farther to cover most of the South American continent. In total, its northern range has receded
1,000 km (621 mi) southward and its southern range 2,000 km (1243 mi) northward. Ice age fossils of the
jaguar, dated between 40,000 and 11,500 years ago, have been discovered in the United States, including some
at an important site as far north as Missouri. Fossil evidence shows jaguars of up to 190 kg (420 lb), much
larger than the contemporary average for the animal.
The habitat of the cat includes the rain forests of South and Central America, open, seasonally flooded wetlands, and dry grassland terrain.
Of these habitats, the jaguar much prefers dense forest; the cat has lost range most rapidly in regions of drier habitat, such as the
Argentine pampas, the arid grasslands of Mexico, and the southwestern United States. The cat will range across tropical, subtropical, and dry
deciduous forests (including, historically, oak forests in the United States). The jaguar prefers to live by rivers, swamps, and in dense
rainforest with thick cover for stalking prey. Jaguars have been found at elevations as high as 3,800 m, but they typically avoid montane
forest and are not found in the high plateau of central Mexico or in the Andes. The jaguars preferred habitats are usually swamps and wooded
regions, but jaguars also live in scrublands and deserts.
The adult jaguar is an apex predator, meaning it exists at the top of its food chain and is not preyed on in
the wild. The jaguar has also been termed a keystone species, as it is assumed, through controlling the
population levels of prey such as herbivorous and granivorous mammals, apex felids maintain the structural
integrity of forest systems. However, accurately determining what effect species like the jaguar have on
ecosystems is difficult, because data must be compared from regions where the species is absent as well as its
current habitats, while controlling for the effects of human activity. It is accepted that mid-sized prey species undergo population increases in the absence of the keystone predators, and this has been hypothesized to have cascading negative effects. However, field work has shown this may be natural variability and the population increases may not be sustained. Thus, the keystone predator hypothesis is not accepted by all scientists.
The jaguar also has an effect on other predators. The jaguar and the cougar, the next-largest feline of the
Americas, are often sympatric (related species sharing overlapping territory) and have often been studied in
conjunction. Where sympatric with the jaguar, the cougar is smaller than normal and is smaller than the local
jaguars. The jaguar tends to take larger prey, usually over 22 kg (49 lb) and the cougar smaller, usually
between 2 and 22 kg (4.4 and 48.5 lb), reducing the latter's size. This situation may be advantageous to the
cougar. Its broader prey niche, including its ability to take smaller prey, may give it an advantage over the
jaguar in human-altered landscapes; while both are classified as near-threatened species, the cougar has a
significantly larger current distribution.
Jaguar populations are rapidly declining. The animal is considered Near Threatened by the International Union
for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), meaning it may be threatened with extinction in the near future. The loss
of parts of its range, including its virtual elimination from its historic northern areas and the increasing
fragmentation of the remaining range, have contributed to this status. The 1960s had particularly significant
declines, with more than 15,000 jaguar skins brought out of the Brazilian Amazon yearly; the Convention on
International Trade in Endangered Species of 1973 brought about a sharp decline in the pelt trade. Detailed
work performed under the auspices of the Wildlife Conservation Society revealed the animal has lost 37 percent
of its historic range, with its status unknown in an additional 18 percent. More encouragingly, the
probability of long-term survival was considered high in 70 percent of its remaining range, particularly in
the Amazon basin and the adjoining Gran Chaco and Pantanal. In 1990 Belize created the Cockscomb Basin
Wildlife Sanctuary as the world's first wilderness reserve for jaguar protection and study.
Given the inaccessibility of much of the species' range, particularly the central Amazon, estimating jaguar
numbers is difficult. Researchers typically focus on particular bioregions, thus species-wide analysis is
scant. In 1991, 600-1,000 (the highest total) were estimated to be living in Belize. A year earlier, 125-180
jaguars were estimated to be living in Mexico's 4,000-km2 (2400-mi2) Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, with another
350 in the state of Chiapas. The adjoining Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala, with an area measuring 15,000
km2 (9,000 mi2), may have 465-550 animals. Work employing GPS telemetry in 2003 and 2004 found densities of
only six to seven jaguars per 100 km2 in the critical Pantanal region, compared with 10 to 11 using traditional
methods; this suggests the widely used sampling methods may inflate the actual numbers of cats.
The major risks to the jaguar include deforestation across its habitat, increasing competition for food with
human beings, poaching, hurricanes in northern parts of its range, and the behavior of ranchers who will often
kill the cat where it preys on livestock. When adapted to the prey, the jaguar has been shown to take cattle
as a large portion of its diet; while land clearance for grazing is a problem for the species, the jaguar
population may have increased when cattle were first introduced to South America, as the animals took advantage
of the new prey base. This willingness to take livestock has induced ranch owners to hire full-time jaguar
The skins of wild cats and other mammals have been highly valued by the fur trade for many decades. From the
beginning of the 20th-century Jaguars were hunted in large numbers, but over-harvest and habitat destruction
reduced the availability and induced hunters and traders to gradually shift to smaller species by the 1960s.
The international trade of jaguar skins had its largest boom between the end of the Second World War and the
early 1970, due to the growing economy and lack of regulations. From 1967 onwards, the regulations introduced
by national laws and international agreements diminished the reported international trade from as high as
13000 skins in 1967, through 7000 skins in 1969, until it became negligible after 1976, although illegal trade
and smuggling continue to be a problem. During this period, the biggest exporters were Brazil and Paraguay,
and the biggest importers were the USA and Germany.
The jaguar is regulated as an Appendix I species under CITES: all international trade in jaguars or their
parts is prohibited. All hunting of jaguars is prohibited in Argentina, Belize, Colombia, French Guiana,
Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname, the United States (where it is listed as endangered under
the Endangered Species Act), Uruguay and Venezuela. Hunting of jaguars is restricted to "problem animals" in
Brazil, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico and Peru, while trophy hunting is still permitted in Bolivia. The
species has no legal protection in Ecuador or Guyana.