The jaguar is the largest cat in the American continents. A jaguar’s weight ranges between 77 to 285 pounds (35 to 130 kilograms). Generally, the males are heavier than the females. The jaguar’s body is stocky, compact and muscular. The length of the body varies from 5.5 to 7.9 feet (1.7 to 2.4 meters) with the tail being 20 to 26 inches (52 to 66 cm) of the jaguar’s length. Jaguars that live in forested areas tend to be smaller than jaguars that live in open areas such as the Pantanal (the world’s largest wetland) in Brazil or the Llanos (tropical grassland plain) in Venezuela.
A jaguar’s fur varies from yellow to black and is characterized by black spots that form rosettes of different sizes. The rosettes are like fingerprints of the animal that identify each animal. Each individual jaguar has a unique rosettes pattern on its fur. Because of this, it is possible to use camera traps to take photographs of jaguars in the wild and to estimate the size of the jaguar population in an area. Most jaguars are yellow with black spots, but black jaguars also exist. Black jaguars also have black spots that form rosettes.
Other cat species that also have spots can be confused with the jaguar. For example, the leopard occurs in Africa and Asia, and the ocelot which occurs in the American continents both have fur that resembles the jaguar’s fur. However, each species has distinct characteristics.
The jaguar, along with the snow leopard, tiger, lion, and leopard, make up the five big cats that belong to the Panthera genus. The jaguar, tiger, lion and leopard have an incomplete ossification of the hyoid bone, located in the throat region, that enables these four cat species to roar. Roaring is a method of communication between individual jaguars mainly during the mating season. Members of the smaller species of cats can only meow as a form of communication.
Jaguars concentrate their activities around dawn and dusk, however, behavior varies by geographic region. In dense jungle habitats, the jaguar may be active during the day.
The jaguar is a territorial animal, and uses scrape marks on trees, urine, and feces to mark its territory. The jaguar is a solitary animal that only interacts with other individuals of the species to court and mate.
Females reach sexual maturity at approximately two years. Males reach sexual maturity at approximately three years, and are attracted by the scent marks and vocalization of the females.
The jaguar plays an important part in the maintenance of equilibrium in the ecosystems where it occurs, regulating population sizes of species such as peccaries, capybara, and caiman. Since the jaguar needs large areas to be preserved to survive and reproduce, it is considered an umbrella species. By preserving the habitat needed for the jaguar to survive, all other species in the ecosystem benefit from the protection.
In Brazil, the jaguar is listed by IBAMA (The Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources) as threatened with extinction. The conversion of habitat into farmland is the principal cause of the 50% reduction in the jaguar’s original range. The jaguar is extinct in two (Uruguay and El Salvador) of the 21 countries where it historically occurred. The jaguar is legally protected in the majority of countries where it is found. Only in Bolivia is hunting still permitted, and the jaguar does not have any legal protection in Ecuador and Guyana.
The Amazon is the major refuge for the jaguar. In all other habitats, the fragmentation of habitat has isolated jaguar populations and is the major threat to the species. The restoration and maintenance of corridors between isolated populations is the principal strategy in conserving the jaguar.
The jaguar is at the top of the food chain and is exclusively a carnivore. Studies of its diet have registered over 85 species of natural prey.
The jaguar is an opportunistic hunter, feeding on the most abundant species in its ecosystem. In some regions of Brazil, jaguars feed mainly on large mammals such as peccaries, capybara, and tapirs. In other regions, the jaguar mainly feeds on reptiles such as turtles and caiman. In areas where the jaguar lives next to ranches, cattle can be a main part of the jaguar’s diet.
The size of each jaguar’s territory varies by where it is located. The smallest territories occur in the forests of Belize with a territory of about 5 square miles (13 square kilometers). The largest territories occur in the grasslands (Cerrado) of central Brazil with a territory of about 102 square miles (265 square kilometers). Male jaguars have larger territories than females. A male jaguar’s territory can encompass the territories of several females. The jaguar occurs in density of approximately 1 to 7 adult individuals per 39 square miles (100 square kilometers).