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  ScienceZoologyMammalsOrder CarnivoraFamily Felidae


Panthera onca


The largest cat in the Americas, and third largest in the world, the jaguar weighs 100-250 pounds, stands about 3 feet at the shoulders, and is 6 to 7 feet long (plus a tail of 2-3 feet). In general, jaguars found in dense forests are smaller than those found in more open habitats, and males are generally 10 to 20 percent larger than females. Powerfully built, jaguars have lean bodies and muscular limbs. Although they can run briefly, they are built for power rather than speed.

Base coat colors range from pale yellow to reddish brown, with black, rosette-shaped spots on the neck, body, and limbs. The belly and chest are white, and there is also a white "mustache." Black jaguars are fairly common. These jaguars have a base coat color of black with black spots that are usually dimly visible against the black background. Melanistic jaguars are more common in forested habitats.

Distribution and Habitat

Jaguars are found from southern Arizona and New Mexico south toward northern Argentina and northeastern Brazil. The largest contiguous distribution of jaguars is concentrated in the Amazon Basin, north and east to the Caribbean coast of Venezuela and Guianas. Populations have been greatly reduced in northern Mexico, the United States, northern Brazil, and southern Argentina.

Jaguars prefer dense, tropical moist lowland forests that offer plenty of cover, but they are also found in scrubland, reed thickets, coastal forests, swamps, and thickets. They are always found in habitats near water, such as rivers, slow moving streams, lagoons, watercourses, and swamps.


Over 85 species have been reported in the diet of jaguars. They prefer large animals peccaries, tapirs, and deer, but will also prey on caimans, turtles, snakes, fish, large birds, and almost any other animal they can bring down, including porcupines.

"Jaguar" comes from the native Indian word yaguara, which means "a beast that kills its prey with one bound." That meaning is quite appropriate, as jaguars typically attack prey by pouncing on them from a concealed spot. They either deliver a direct bite to the neck and then suffocate their prey, or they instantly kill them by piercing the back of the skull with their canines. The prey is usually dragged to a secluded spot before being consumed.


Jaguars may produce offspring year-round, but mating typically increases during the months of December through March and most births occur during the wet season, when prey is more abundant.

Females in estrus venture out of their territory to call during the morning and late at night, advertising for a mate. Males answer those calls with their own vocalizations and travel to her territory to mate, leading to competition between males for that mating opportunity. Females do not tolerate the presence of males after mating, and especially after their cubs are born.

Females give birth in a cave den or thicket to 2 offspring (range 1 to 4) after a gestation period of 91 to 111 days. The kittens begin to hunt when they are five to six months old, but are dependent on their mother until they are almost two years old. The jaguar has a lifespan of 15-20 years.

Other Habits and Behaviors

Jaguars are most active near dusk and dawn, although they may be active at any time of the day.

Jaguars are solitary with the exception of mating season, when males travel with females in estrus.

The male's homerange is between 19 and 53 square miles, the female's is between 10 and 37 square miles. A male jaguar may share his home range with several females, and will aggressively protect his homerange from other males to ensure that any females in his territory mate only with him.

The jaguar, unlike most big cats, loves the water. It often swims, bathes, and even plays in streams and pools. It will also hunt for fish in the water.

Conservation Status

Jaguars are considered endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Many populations remain stable but jaguars are threatened throughout most of their range by hunting, persecution, and habitat destruction. Jaguars are persecuted especially in areas of cattle ranching, where they are often shot on sight despite protective legislation.

Scientific Classification

phylum Chordata
subphylum Vertebrata
genus & species Panthera onca

Animal Diversity Web

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  The Robinson Library > Science > Zoology > Mammals > Order Carnivora > Family Felidae

This page was last updated on September 08, 2016.

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