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The jaguar (Panthera onca) is the third largest cat species and the only "Great Cat" (cats that roar, in the genus Panthera) in the Americas. As such it is the biggest member of the cat family, Felidae, in the western hemisphere. The mountain lion, about three-quarters the size, is next biggest. The size of jaguars varies widely, as those from rainforest are smaller than those from open habitats. The jaguar is similar in size and coat pattern to the leopard, a species found only in the Old World. It is bigger than the leopard and has a stocky, thick-set build and its coat pattern differs from that of the leopard. The coat is gold-red with black or dark brown spots in rosettes of four or five. The underparts are white with large black spots. Its long tail is spotted or banded with black. Individuals that are dark brown or completely black all over (melanistic) are quite common, sometimes called panthers. However, a vestige of the spotted pattern is always faintly visible in light at the right angle. The jaguar does not roar like a lion—instead it growls and makes deep grunts that sound somewhat like a cough. These sounds can be heard across a great distance in the forest, up to a quarter mile or more.

The range of the jaguar has shrunk greatly in the last 100 years. Whereas it formerly ranged into the southwestern United States, it is now confined to southern Mexico and parts of Central and South America. The last jaguar in California was killed in 1860 and jaguars had disappeared from the United States by 1950. The jaguar inhabits a wide range of habitat besides tropical forests; swamps and savanna, and even scrub so long as water is available. However, they prefer to lurk around water where they are more like to find abundant prey. After leaving the mother, the young jaguar establishes a territory, the size of which depends on the abundance of prey. In prime habitat, required ranges may be quite small, about 5 to 10 square kilometers. In disturbed areas or where food is sparse, territories may need to be five times this size.

The jaguar is not a fussy eater. It preys on a range of animals such as deer, tapir, peccaries, sloths, capybaras, monkeys and armadillo. As an excellent swimmer, the jaguar is recorded as eating fish, turtles, caimans, and snakes. They hunt day or night, and if seen are most likely to be spotted on a man-made trail, which they prefer for moving around. If caught in a flashlight, their eyes reflect a bright greenish yellow. After a kill, they take the prey to dense undergrowth to feed. In areas where their habitat has been replaced by ranchland, jaguars will prey on livestock, although they generally like to avoid people and human habitations. Although attacks have taken place, jaguars are not generally dangerous to humans as they usually flee from man. Anecdotal accounts tell of jaguars shadowing people on their territory without actually attacking.

Jaguars are solitary much of the time, except during breeding. Not much is known about jaguar breeding behavior. It is believed they stay together only for courtship and mating which takes place over four weeks. Female jaguars are smaller than males who weigh up to a maximum 158 kilograms (about 350 lbs). After mating, the male returns to his home territory. After a hundred days or so (the gestation period), the female gives birth to one to four kittens which are spotted and blind. At birth, the young weigh about 1 kilogram (two pounds). Cubs spend much of their time with the mother, and at about six months begin to learn hunting skills from the mother as they accompany her while hunting. They stay with her for the first few years of life, reaching sexual maturity at about three years old.

As with all wild cats of South America, the jaguar is rare and listed as endangered, hence it is illegal to purchase any products that derive from this species. However, this does not stop hunters selling skins; usually to in-country tourists as foreigners face severe penalties if caught trying to take the skins to their home country. While hunting and sale of wildlife products is illegal, the laws are difficult to enforce and, when they are, offenders often receive the minimum sentences. Cattle ranchers also hunt jaguars, believing they prey on livestock. That said, hunting is not as severe a threat to the jaguar as loss of habitat due to deforestation. Although the jaguar can thrive in a variety of habitats, environmental degradation reduces prey populations and exposes it to several threats such as hunting, pollution and traffic. The total jaguar population is difficult to estimate as the animals are hard to observe in the wild. The Amazon basin is home to the largest remaining population, estimated at around 15,000. Conservation efforts have helped jaguar populations, and captive breeding efforts may enable future reintroductions.

In the mythology of the peoples of South and Central America the jaguar holds among the most prominent places of any animal. Jaguar cults were part of the Maya and other Central American civilizations. These were ruled by Jaguar priests who dictated many aspects of people's lives. An Indian myth tells that the jaguar painted spots on its coat by daubing mud on its body with its paws. Look at the markings closely and you will see that they do look like paw prints. Local myths hold that black jaguars are bigger and more ferocious than the spotted ones, but there is no proof for this. Among the Yanomamo Indians of northwest Brazil tell of Curare Woman and Jaguar who gave rise to the first people. Here is the story told in the words of Daramasiwa, a Yanomamo storyteller.

Long ago, Curare Woman tasted bitter, so Jaguar did not eat her. Curare woman hid her pregnant daughter in the roof above Jaguar's hammock, and sent Jaguar far away to hunt while her daughter was fed by birds whom she protected. One day the daughter pissed all over jaguar. He smelled the urine and smashed the daughter to the ground, killing her. Curare Woman took the daughter's twin fetuses and hid them in a bark container, where they became hekura spirits. When they grew to be men and became Raware', they sought revenge. Through cunning and with an arrow obtained from the sky's edge, they succeeded in killing Jaguar.

(Permission to reprint this text obtained from Documentary Educational Resources.)


Jaguar (Wikipedia)
Jaguar (Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County)
Save the Jaguar
The Jaguar (Green Nature)
Jaguar (BBC Science & Nature Wildfacts)
Capture and Immobilization of Free-living Jaguars (Panthera onca)
South American Cats: Jaguar
Elusive Jaguars Remain a Mystery, Even to Experts
Is that a Jaguar I'm Looking At?
Kids Planet: Jaguar
Searching for the Jaguar (virtual expedtion)
Jaguar conservation in the borderlands (of the U.S.)
Lord of the Forest: Cats in Native American Cultures
Comprehensive Report: Conservation Status
The Belize Zoo—Jaguar
The Big Zoo—Jaguar
Jaguar (drawing, plus a brief overview)
Big Cat Rescue: Jaguar
NatureWorks: Jaguar
Big Cat Rescue: Jaguar
Jaguar: A Yanomamo Twin Cycle Myth As Told by Daramasiwa

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Jaguar Jaguar
In Search of the Jaguar
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