The jaguar is a big cat, a feline in the Panthera genus, and is the only Panthera species found in the Americas. The jaguar is the third-largest feline after the tiger and the lion, and the largest in the Western Hemisphere.
Species of Jaguar include:
The jaguar is a compact and well-muscled animal. Size and weight vary considerably: weights are normally in the range of 56–96 kg. Larger males have been recorded to weigh as much as 160 kg (roughly matching a tigress or lioness), and the smallest females have low weights of 36 kg. Females are typically 10–20% smaller than males.
The length, from the nose to the base of the tail, of the cats varies from 1.2 to 1.95 m. Their tails are the shortest of any big cat, at 45 to 75 cm in length. Their legs are also short, considerably shorter when compared to a small tiger or lion in a similar weight range, but are thick and powerful. The jaguar stands 63 to 76 cm (25 to 30 in) tall at the shoulders. Compared to the similarly coloured leopard, this cat is bigger, heavier and relatively stocky in build.
A short and stocky limb structure makes the jaguar adept at climbing, crawling and swimming. The head is robust and the jaw extremely powerful. The jaguar has the strongest bite of all felids, capable of biting down with 2,000 lbf. This is twice the strength of a lion and the second strongest of all mammals after the spotted hyena; this strength adaptation allows the jaguar to pierce turtle shells. It has been reported that "an individual jaguar can drag a 360 kg bull 8 m in its jaws and pulverize the heaviest bones".
While the jaguar closely resembles the leopard, it is sturdier and heavier, and the two animals can be distinguished by their rosettes: the rosettes on a jaguar's coat are larger, fewer in number, usually darker, and have thicker lines and small spots in the middle that the leopard lacks. Jaguars also have rounder heads and shorter, stockier limbs compared to leopards.
The base coat of the jaguar is generally a tawny yellow, but can range to reddish-brown and black, for most of the body. However the ventral areas are white. 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.
Colour morphism occurs in the species. A near-black melanistic form occurs regularly. Jaguars with melanism appear entirely black, although their spots are still visible on close examination.
Melanistic jaguars are informally known as black panthers, but like all forms of polymorphism, they do not form a separate species.
Extremely rare albino individuals, sometimes called white panthers, also occur among jaguars, as with the other big cats. As usual with albinos in the wild, selection keeps the frequency close to the rate of mutation.
Like most cats, the jaguar is solitary outside mother-cub groups. Adults generally meet only to court and mate and carve out large territories for themselves. Female territories, which range from 25 to 40 km2 in size, may overlap, but the animals generally avoid one another. Male ranges cover roughly twice as much area, varying in size with the availability of game and space, and do not overlap. The jaguar uses scrape marks, urine, and faeces to mark its territory.
Mating fights between males occur, but are rare, and aggression avoidance behaviour has been observed in the wild. When it occurs, conflict is typically over territory: a male's range may encompass that of two or three females, and he will not tolerate intrusions by other adult males.
The jaguar is often described as nocturnal, but is more specifically crepuscular (peak activity around dawn and dusk). Both sexes hunt, but males travel farther each day than females, befitting their larger territories. The jaguar may hunt during the day if game is available and is a relatively energetic feline, spending as much as 50–60% of its time active. The jaguar's elusive nature and the inaccessibility of much of its preferred habitat make it a difficult animal to sight, let alone study.
Jaguar females reach sexual maturity at about two years of age, and males at three or four. The cat is believed to mate throughout the year in the wild, although births may increase when prey is plentiful.
Mating pairs separate after the act, and females provide all parenting. The gestation period lasts 93–105 days; females give birth to up to four cubs, and most commonly to two. The mother will not tolerate the presence of males after the birth of cubs, given a risk of infanticide.
The young are born blind, gaining sight after two weeks. Cubs are weaned at three months, but remain in the birth den for six months before leaving to accompany their mother on hunts. They will continue in their mother's company for one to two years before leaving to establish a territory for themselves. Young males are at first nomadic, jostling with their older counterparts until they succeed in claiming a territory. Typical lifespan in the wild is estimated at around 12–15 years; in captivity, the jaguar lives up to 23 years.
Like all cats, the jaguar is a carnivore, feeding only on meat. It is an opportunistic hunter and its diet encompasses at least 87 species. They regularly take adult caimans, deer, capybaras, tapirs, peccaries, dogs, foxes, and sometimes even anacondas. However, the jaguar will eat any small species that can be caught, including frogs, mice, birds, fish, sloths, monkeys, and turtles.
While the jaguar often employs the deep throat-bite and suffocation technique typical among Panthera, it sometimes uses a killing method unique amongst cats: it pierces directly through the temporal bones of the skull between the ears of prey (especially the capybara) with its canine teeth, piercing the brain.
The jaguar is a stalk-and-ambush rather than a chase predator. The cat will walk slowly down forest paths, listening for and stalking prey before rushing or ambushing. The jaguar attacks from cover and usually from a target's blind spot with a quick pounce. 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.
On killing prey, the jaguar will drag the carcass to a thicket or other secluded spot. It begins eating at the neck and chest, rather than the midsection. Unlike all other species in the Panthera genus, jaguars very rarely attack humans. Most of the scant cases where jaguars turn to taking a human show the animal is either old with damaged teeth or is wounded. Sometimes, if scared or threatened, jaguars in captivity may lash out at zookeepers.
Like the other big cats, the jaguar is capable of roaring and does so to warn territorial and mating competitors away; intensive bouts of counter-calling between individuals have been observed in the wild. Their roar often resembles a repetitive cough, and they may also vocalize mews and grunts. It spits and snarls to show their hostility. Although jaguars roar, they more often grunt, snarl, growl or even mew. Cubs often whine.