About the Jaguar

One of the so-called roaring cats, the jaguar (Panthera onca) is the largest cat native to North America and the third largest cat in the world. The name jaguar comes from the South American Tupi and Guarani languages, likely from the word yaguareté, translated as “true, fierce beast.”

The majestic jaguar has long been esteemed for its unequivocal power and striking beauty, regarded as a symbol of wildness, and bestowed as a prominent character in religion, mythology, and art. The Maya believed the jaguar, God of the Underworld, helped the sun travel under the Earth at night, ensuring it would rise each morning. The Olmecs understood jaguars to be divine gods possessing the ability to jump-start earthquakes. Worshiped by the Aztecs, jaguars were positioned as guardians of their sacred temples.

The jaguar is commonly identified by its distinctive spotted coat, which is often confused with that of the leopard. In the wild, identification would not be an issue, as they inhabit different continents – the jaguar is the only member of the Panthera family found in the Americas. Both cats have a similar brownish-yellow base fur color with individually unique, dark rosette markings. However, jaguars can be distinguished by small dots or irregular shapes within the larger markings. Called tigre mariposo, the spot pattern found on northern jaguars conjures images of butterflies.

With stocky, muscular bodies and thick chests, large and broad heads, relatively compact limbs, large paws, and short tails, jaguars measure five to eight feet from nose to tail and often appear larger than they actually are. Weighing between 80 and 120 pounds, the northern jaguar in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands is noticeably petite compared to its South American relatives.

Unlike most cats, which kill their prey by grabbing the throat and suffocating it, the jaguar kills by piercing its prey’s skull or neck with one swift bite – demonstrating the amazing strength of its powerful jaws and impressive teeth. As strong climbers and excellent swimmers, jaguars are perfectly adapted to capture deer, javelina, desert bighorn sheep, birds, turtles, snakes, and fish.

Jaguars will mate any time of year, though births tend to peak during the rainy season. Males and females come together only for courtship and mating, leaving the female to raise her young alone. Following a 100-day gestation period, a female jaguar will give birth to a litter of two to four cubs. The cubs are blind at birth and do not leave the den for two weeks. They learn how to hunt after six months and stay with their mothers for up to two years before leaving to find their own territory. In the wild, the average lifespan of a jaguar is 12 to 16 years.

Like many large, solitary predators, jaguars can wander and cover an immense territory with documented home ranges of hundreds of miles. They flag their territories with urine, scent markings, and by scratching trees. While these elusive cats once roamed throughout the southern U.S., only four are known in Arizona and New Mexico since the mid-1990s. Today, an estimated 10,000 jaguars remain in Mexico, Central and South America.

Did you know?:

  • One of the jaguar’s most distinctive features is its repertoire of calls, including a variety of snarls, growls, and “roars,” which are more aptly described as a series of hoarse coughs or grunts.
  • The eyes of jaguars have round pupils and irises that range in color from golden to reddish yellow. Very young cubs have blue eyes.
  • Jaguars are one of the few species of wild cats that have melanistic individuals, yet black jaguars have never been seen in their northern range.
  • Jaguars are rapid runners but tire quickly and rely on proximity rather than sustained speed while hunting.
  • Jaguar tracks are unmistakable in their roundness, both in the pad and in the four toes that touch the ground.
  • Jaguars have huge eyes, the largest of all carnivores relative to head size.
  • Jaguars were once presumed to be nocturnal, but recent studies show they are also active during the day, with peaks of activity at dawn and dusk.
Top photo: camera trap in the Sierra Bacatete courtesy of Naturalia/Jamut Boo’/UAQ; bottom: wild jaguar in the Pantanal by Larry Wan