The jaguar is a big cat, a feline in the Panthera genus and is the one cat of that genus found in the Americas. On our planet, only the tiger and the lion are cats larger than the jaguar, and in the Western Hemisphere it is the largest. The jaguar can be found in the Southwestern United States and Mexico as well as across most of Central America. Its range continues well into South America as far as Paraguay and northern Argentina.
A small number of jaguars have been seen in New Mexico, Arizona (southeast of Tucson) and Texas but other than those few, since the early 20th century the cat is mostly no longer found in the United States. Jaguars have been listed as a Near Threatened species by the IUCN>
Scientific Name: Panthera onca
The jaguar has been an American cat since crossing the Bering Land Bridge during the Pleistocene epoch. Once, jaguars roamed over most of North America. Fossils have been found as far north as Missouri dating from the last Ice Age about 25,000 years ago. Constantly pushed southward by a variety of factors, jaguars now can be found only in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas and from Mexico all the way down to Patagonia. They are rare in the United States and are a federal endangered species.
There are only an estimated 15,000 jaguars in the wild in Mexico, Central and South America. Conservation efforts between the United States and Mexico have been successful at protecting a small population of 80 to 120 cats in the remote mountains of Sonora, Mexico bordering Arizona. These cats represent almost the only hope to recover a jaguar population back within the United States. There are two other, smaller populations in Sonora but neither is expected to expand north of the Mexican/US border, even with assistance.
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.
Physically, with its spotted coat, the jaguar resembles the leopard except that it is larger, stronger and more muscular. Its fur is normally yellow and tan, but the color can vary from reddish brown to black. A near-black melanin-pigmented form occurs regularly. Jaguars with melanism (dark pigmentation of the fur) appear entirely black, although their spots are still visible on close examination. On all jaguars the spots on the coat are more solid and black on the head and neck and become larger rosette-shaped patterns along the side and back of the body.
Lions, tigers, leopards and jaguars are the only cats that can roar. The sound is produced by a specialized larynx and flexible bone in its throat and can be used to stake territory, communicate generally or express anger.
The jaguar prefers life in a dense rainforest but will also live across open terrains, deciduous forests, swamps, pampas grasslands and mountain scrub areas. Jaguars love the water and will bathe and swim, play and hunt to catch fish in pools or creeks. Once old enough to leave its mother (12 to 24 months), a jaguar tends to live a solitary life as an adult, comfortable mostly on its own. 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.
Hunting & Prey
With no predators, the jaguar exists at the top of the food chain in its habitat. The physical makeup of the jaguar is such that stalking and ambushing its prey is the preferred and more effective means of survival. The jaguar’s ambushing abilities are considered nearly peerless in the animal kingdom by both indigenous people and field researchers. It’s exceptionally powerful jaw structure gives the jaguar the strongest bite force of all of the big cats enabling it to penetrate armored reptile shells as well as the hardened skulls of other, larger animals. Unlike other cats, it can kill with a fatal bite between the ears, directly into the brain. 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.
In the food chain, the jaguar plays a vital part in stabilizing ecosystems and keeping in check the populations of the animals within its range upon which this adept hunter depends for its survival. Jaguars are known to eat armadillos, birds, cattle, crocodiles, deer, eggs, fish, frogs, heifers, horses, mice and other rodents, monkeys, peccary, sloths, snakes, tapirs, turtles and anything else they can catch, up to 87 different species of animal and reptile food sources. 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. With smaller prey such as monkeys or wild dogs, a paw swipe to the skull may be sufficient to kill it.
Whereas the jaguar is near to being completely gone from the United States, it still exists in Mexico, Central and South America though is now extinct in El Salvador and Uruguay. Elsewhere, jaguar populations are rapidly declining. The big cat is considered Near Threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, meaning it may be threatened with extinction in the near future (see scale below). Loss and fragmentation of habitat is a major threat to the jaguar. International trade involving jaguars or their parts is illegal but the cat is still frequently killed by ranchers and farmers in South America attempting to prevent jaguars hunting their stock. And poaching hasn’t stopped, nor is it prohibited in every country.
Read more about jaguar conservation and organizations to prevent jaguar extinction.