Jaguars (Panthera onca) are large cats native to South and Central America. They are closely related to the Lions, Tigers and Leopards of the Old World, and are the largest cat species found in the Americas.
Although Jaguars look very like Leopards and are closely related to them, their ecological role and behaviour is more akin to that of the Tiger.
Their habitat ranges from the rain forests of South and Central America to more open country, but they are rarely seen in mountainous areas. Known for their strong swimming and climbing abilities, they often prefer to live by rivers, in swamps, and in dense forest with thick cover for stalking prey.
Jaguars are solitary hunters that do not associate with one another outside the breeding season and typically take large prey: their very stong jaw equips them to hunt deer and peccaries, but they are great opportunists and will take anything from frogs and mice to birds, fish, and domestic livestock.
The background of the coat is usually an orange-yellow in colour, with numerous rings or rosettes on the flanks and spots on the head and neck. It is possible to distinguish this cat from a Leopard by the presence of spots inside its rosettes. A condition known as melanism can create Jaguars that appear entirely black (although the spots are still visible if one looks closely). These are known as black panthers, but do not form a separate species.
Young Jaguar males reach sexual maturity at about 3 or four years of age, females about a year earlier. Females give birth to as many as four cubs after a 90 to 110 day gestation, but raise no more than two of them to adulthood. The young are born blind and can see after two weeks. They remain with their mother for a long time, up to two years, before leaving to establish a territory for themselves, which can be anywhere between 25 and 150 square kilometres in size (depending on the availability of suitable prey). In captivity, Jaguars can live for up to 20 years.
Two Jaguars mating. Note the melanistic female.
(Image courtesy of David B. Jack.).
In one native South American language yaguara means "a beast that kills its prey with one bound"; the English word jaguar is derived from this term.
Other uses of the term: