Order: Carnivora – felines, canines, bears, raccoons, mustelids, seals, etc.
Family: Felidae – Cats
Scientific Name: Panthera onca
Description: Third largest cat in the world, and largest cat of the Americas. Though they resemble the leopard of Africa and Asia, jaguars have shorter legs, stockier, more compact bodies, and a broader head. The spot pattern of the jaguar consists of fewer but larger rosettes, often with one or more spots in the center of the rosette. Leopards have more, but smaller, rosettes with no center spots. Coloration is usually black spots on a buff to reddish-yellow background. Melanistic jaguars (black spots on black background) are less common, but the spots can still be observed in the right light. Height is 27”-30” at the shoulder, length is 44” – 58”, tail is 21”-28” long, and weight is 150-250 lbs. However, in certain areas, such as the Pantanal of Brazil, jaguars over 350 lbs. are common.
Home Range: Historical range includes much of the SW United States through Central and South America to Patagonia. Currently, breeding populations have been eliminated in the US and much of Mexico.
Habitat Type: Desert, semi-desert, grasslands, wetlands, and rain forests.
Reproductive Habits: The breeding season generally takes place in late winter or early spring in the northern and southern edges of their range. In the tropics, breeding is not restricted by season. Females in estrus will leave their territory to search for males, and may attract one or more by calling loudly. The jaguar’s call sounds like a bark followed by several short coughs, and except when the female is in estrus, females generally have a softer “roar” than males do. Though fighting over a female does occur between males, it is rare (most fights are over territory). The gestation period is 93-110 days, and 2-4 young are born. Cubs weigh between 1.5 –2 lbs. at birth and are blind for the first 13 days. Females drive the males away before or immediately after giving birth, as males have been known to kill cubs. The young stay with the mother for 1½ - 2 years. Sexual maturity is reached at 2-4 years.
Diet in Wild: Changes with availability. They generally prefer rodents, tapirs, deer, monkeys, birds, turtles, frogs, and fish. Will eat livestock on occasion.
Diet in Zoo: Nebraska brand feline diet. Beef knuckle bones for hygiene and enrichment.
General Info: Jaguars are basically solitary cats. Males have a territory averaging 15-30 square miles, while a female’s territory is about half that size. One male’s territory may overlap several females’ territories. Young cubs may stay with their siblings after leaving their mother until the siblings can establish separate territories. In areas with dense jaguar populations, the older males will establish territories, while the younger males are forced to become nomadic. Jaguars seem to need to stay near permanent bodies of water, where they will swim, hunt, and escape the heat. Jaguars are perhaps the most water loving of cats, and they have been observed carrying the carcasses of cattle while swimming.
Conservation Status: Jaguars are listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List and are protected under CITES appendix I. They have been driven out of most of their historic range (including the US) due to habitat destruction and over-hunting of both jaguars and their prey. Because they require large areas to maintain viable populations, they now exist in isolated fragments of habitat and in forest preserves. Jaguars were historically poached both for their fur and because they were (are) a perceived threat to livestock. Although it is true that jaguars will hunt livestock on occasion, much of the livestock that is killed in South America belongs to free-roaming semi-wild herds. Compared to losses of livestock due to flood, drought, disease, parasites, starvation, and theft, the losses due to jaguars are minimal. There is also some evidence that poaching actually contributes to livestock losses from jaguars. Many jaguars that habitually prey upon livestock are found to have been crippled by gunshot wounds earlier in life. Due to their injuries, the jaguars are not strong enough to hunt wild prey, and turn to livestock as a result.
Jaguars were common in the SW United States into the 20th century. The last known breeding population occurred in Arizona in the 1950s. Since then, there have been many reports of jaguars in Arizona and New Mexico, but these are probably individuals crossing the border from Mexico. Due to a loophole in the Endangered Species Act, it was legal to kill jaguars in the US until the 1980s, and many of the jaguars that did cross the border were killed.
Predators: Due to their aggressive nature, they have few natural predators.
Wildlife Fact File. Group 1: Mammals. Card # 23. 1991.
Walker’s Mammals of the World, Volume I, Sixth Edition. John Hopkins University Press. Baltimore, MD Pp. 831-832.
Spirit of the Jaguar. 1996. Alan Rabinowitz. Wildlife Conservation Magazine, Wildlife Conservation Society, New York, NY. May/June issue.