The Jaguar is the largest cat native to the New World. Its natural range extends from southern Mexico to Argentina although it used to occur in the United States. Like the Lion in the Old World, the Jaguar is a symbol of power and strength, and was revered by the ancient civilisations of the Americas. Today it is an endangered species, one of the rarest of the big cats. Unfortunately, its future prospects in the wild are bleak.
A Jaguar has similar coloration to a Leopard, but the Jaguar has more spots inside the rosettes on its coat. Like the Leopard, the Jaguar is an agile animal that is adept at climbing trees. In fact, it is said to be the best climber of all the cats. Often living in jungles or forests, the Jaguar uses this ability to conceal itself among the branches and foliage, from where it can ambush prey wandering beneath. The Jaguar is also an accomplished swimmer and is often found near water, for example on forest shorelines in the Amazon rainforest, and in swampy territory.
- NAME: Panthera once
- RANGE: Southern Mexico to northern Argentina, but now rare everywhere in the northern parts of its range. The largest populations are found in Central America and Brazil, particularly in the Amazon region.
- HABITAT: Swamps, jungles and other forested areas.
- APPEARANCE: Large head and body, relatively short, thick legs. Coat yellow to reddish, occasionally black or white, with black spots arranged in rosettes; tail has irregular black markings. Males 1.7-2.7 m (5.5-9ft) long, including the tail of 60cm (2ft), height to shoulder 60cm (24in), weight 136kg (300lb). Females are much smaller in size.
- FOOD: Wide range of prey, including birds, fish, deer, tapirs, sloths, capybaras; sometimes cattle, Caimans and dogs.
- BREEDING: In the northern part o its range, mating takes place towards the end of the year; in other parts, mating appears to occur at any season. Litters of 1-4 spotted cubs, which remain with their mother until they are 2 years old. Young Jaguars reach sexual maturity at 3 years.
- GESTATION: 93-105 days. LIFESPAN: 22 years (in captivity) .
DECLINE OF THE JAGUAR
The Mayan and Aztec civilisations revered the Jaguar and treated it with great respect. The Mayans, for example, thought of the cat as a mediator between the living and the dead, as their companion in the spirit world, and as a protector of royalty. The Aztecs also viewed the Jaguar as a warrior and associated it with royalty.
Today the Jaguar is treated by many as an enemy, and is hunted as a predator of livestock. Its numbers are also declining because of the destruction of its habitat, a result of deforestation for timber, mining and farming. Further reduction in numbers of Jaguars results from hunting by those who trade illegally in its fur.
Jaguars fight to defend a territory just like other cats. This territory is an area usually established by a male, in which he mates and fathers young.
The family Panthera, to which the Jaguar belongs, also includes the Lion, Clouded Leopard, Leopard, Cheetah, Snow Leopard and Tiger. All these cats have in common a bone that lies at the base of the tongue (hyoid bone) that is partly composed of cartilage. This allows movement in the cats’ vocal apparatus, which in turn enables them to roar. They are the only members of the Felidae group that can roar.
Like other big cats, stories abound of Jaguars attacking and eating humans, but such stories most likely fall into the realm of the myth. Indians of the Amazon also relate tales of Jaguars entering their villages to play with children.
Both the Jaguar and the Leopard exhibit the characteristic known as melanism, which causes the coat to appear completely black. In bright light the rosettes of spots can be seen.