What's the Difference Between Jaguars and Leopards?

Look close enough, and it's all in the spots.

Leopard in Chobe National Park, Botswana.
A leopard lounges in Chobe National Park, Botswana.

Mint Images / Art Wolfe / Getty Images

Telling the difference between jaguars and leopards can get confusing thanks to their (almost) matching signature spots. But these big cats are, in fact, two separate species, with territorial ranges in two distinct parts of the world. They also differ in several physical and behavioral characteristics.

From body size and spot shape to preferred hunting styles, discover the traits that set jaguars and leopards apart. Also, learn what types of threats they each face in their native habitats.

Key Differences

  • Size: Jaguars can weigh between 80 and 350 pounds, while leopards are smaller at 37 to 198 pounds.
  • Body Shape: Leopards are leaner than jaguars, who have blockier heads and stockier bodies.
  • Habitat: Jaguars are the most aquatic of the two cats, with the ability to thrive in wetter habitats like forests and wetlands. Leopards are better climbers, so they tend to stay in open ranges with trees.
  • Range: Leopards are found in Africa and some parts of Asia, while jaguars live only in Central and South America.
  • Spots: Jaguar spots consist of rosettes with inner spots. Leopards have similar rosette patterns but with no inner spots.

Classification

Jaguar spots have a series of smaller spots within the rosettes.
Jaguar spots have a series of smaller spots within the rosettes.

Mark Newman / Getty Images

Both jaguars and leopards belong to the genus Panthera, part of the big cat family, along with lions and tigers. The jaguar (or Panthera onca) consists of a single species. However, scientists previously described at least nine subspecies, starting in the 1700s.

These include the Arizona jaguar (Panthera onca arizonensis), the Central American jaguar (P. o. centralis), the Yucatan Peninsula jaguar (P. o. goldmani), the West Mexican jaguar (P. o. hernandesii), the East Brazilian jaguar (P. o. onca), South American jaguar (P. o. palustris), the Paraguay jaguar, (P. o. paraguensis), the Peruvian jaguar (P. o. peruviana), and the northeastern jaguar (P. o. veraecrucis). In 2017, biologists changed the taxonomy to classify jaguars as a single monotype species with no subspecies.

When it comes to leopards (Panthera pardus), there are eight currently-recognized subspecies: the Indochinese leopard (P. p. delacouri), the African leopard (P. p. pardus), the Arabian leopard (P. p. nimr), the Persian leopard (P. p. saxicolor), the Indian leopard (P. p. fusca), the Sri Lankan leopard (P. p. kotiya), the Amur leopard (P. p. orientalis), the Javan leopard (P. p. melas), and the North Chinese leopard (P. p. japonensis).

Black jaguars (also called black panthers) have a genetic mutation called melanism.
Black jaguars (also called black panthers) have a genetic mutation called melanism.

Mark Newman / Getty Images

What About Snow Leopards and Black Panthers?

The snow leopard (Panthera uncia) is its own unique species, characterized by its thick, gray fur tinged with light yellow and native range in the Central and South Asia mountains. The term “black panther” is used to designate a jaguar or leopard that exhibits dark coloring called melanism. While these cats appear mostly black in color, their spots are still slightly visible in the right light.

Characteristics

Leopards spend much of their time in trees.
Leopards spend much of their time in trees.

Londolozi Images/Mint Images / Getty Images

Both jaguars and leopards are ambush predators with powerful jaws and spotted coats. Jaguars tend to be larger and bulkier than leopards, weighing between 80 and 350 pounds compared to smaller leopards at 37 to 198 pounds. Jaguars live in Central and South America, while leopards are found in Africa and Asia.

Because of the differences in geography and body type, the two species also differ in hunting behavior. Leopards are leaner overall with longer tails, helping them maintain their balance in the trees where they drag their prey to eat (which also helps protect their meals from competing predators). Jaguars, on the other hand, stalk a variety of denser, wetter habitats like rainforests and wetlands. They use their swimming skills, blocky heads, and strong jaws to crush the bodies of their prey rather than relying on pure agility.

It may look like these two big cats have matching spots from far away, but they’re actually slightly different. Although both animal spots have rosette patterns, leopard spots are more solid and blocky, while jaguar spots have a series of smaller spots within the rosettes. 

Conservation Status

Jaguars are excellent swimmers.
Jaguars are excellent swimmers.

Darrell Gulin / Getty Images

The jaguar species is classified as Near Threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), though experts believe the overall population is decreasing. Between 1996 and 2017, there was an estimated loss in the global jaguar population of between 20% and 25% due to threats from habitat loss and human conflict. It certainly doesn’t help that Central and South America, where jaguars live, has some of the highest deforestation rates in the world. All in all, jaguars have lost about 49% of their historic native range.

Global leopard population levels are also decreasing. The species is classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN, having moved up from Near Threatened in 2016. Experts agree that leopards continue to face consistent threats from habitat fragmentation, the illegal wildlife trade, prey declines, and human persecution as development increases in their native range.

Out of all leopard subspecies, the Amur leopard is the most critically endangered, with less than an estimated 60 individuals left in the wild. The Arabian leopard and the Javan leopard are also classified as Critically Endangered in their native ranges of the Arabian Peninsula and the Indonesian island of Java, respectively. The Sri Lankan leopard and Persian leopard are considered Endangered.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Is a black panther a jaguar or leopard?

    A black panther is a name given to a big cat classified in the genus Panthera with melanism—an increased amount of black or very dark pigmentation on the fur or skin.

  • Is a jaguar stronger than a leopard?

    Jaguars are generally larger and stronger than leopards. They also enjoy the strongest bite force of any big cat.

  • Are jaguars and leopards related?

    Along with lions, jaguars and leopards are more closely related to each other than other big cats, who all diverged from a single ancestor approximately 4.6 million years ago.

View Article Sources
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  2. Kitchener, A. C., et al. 2017. "A revised taxonomy of the Felidae." IUCN/SSC Cat Specialist Group. Cat News Special Issue 11, 80 pp.

  3. Quigley, H., Foster, R., Petracca, L., Payan, E., Salom, R. & Harmsen, B. 2017. "Panthera onca." The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2017: e.T15953A123791436. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2017-3.RLTS.T15953A50658693.en.

  4. Stein, A.B., et al. "Leopard." International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species, 2020, doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2020-1.RLTS.T15954A163991139.en

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