12 Fierce Facts About Jaguars

From their strong bite to their love of water, learn all about these amazing big cats.

A wild jaguar in the Pantanal is watchful while laying in thick vegetation along the river bank of t
Jami Tarris / Getty Images

Jaguars, known for their distinctive yellow-orange fur and unique spots, are found in small pockets of forested habitats throughout South, North, and Central America. Designated as “Near Threatened” by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, they are the largest cats in the Americas and also the only living representative of the genus Panthera.

It was much easier to find these big cats a century ago when their territory extended as far north as New Mexico and Arizona in the United States and as far south as Argentina. Due to threats like deforestation and habitat degradation, however, they’ve lost 46% of their historic range. Today, the majority of jaguar populations are condensed to the Amazon basin and are continuing to decrease.

Here are a few facts you may not have known about the elusive jaguar.

Fast Facts

  • Common Name: Jaguar
  • Scientific Name: Panthera onca
  • Average Lifespan in the Wild: 12 to 15 years
  • Average Lifespan in Captivity: Up to 20 years
  • IUCN Red List Status: Near Threatened

1. Jaguars Have the Strongest Bite of the Cat Kingdom (Relative to Size)

These majestic cats have a stocky, heavy build with robust canines and a massive head, allowing them a more powerful bite than any other large cat relative to its size. Studies comparing the bite forces of nine different cat species revealed that, while a jaguar’s bite force is only three-quarters as strong as a tiger’s bite force, jaguars have the stronger bites since they are considerably smaller (up to 170 cm long, not including their tails, which can grow up to 80 cm). A jaguar’s jaw can bite straight through the skull of its prey, and can even pierce the thick skin of a caiman with ease.

2. They Love the Water

A jaguar going for a swim
Photo by James Keith / Getty Images 

Unlike most cats, Jaguars don’t mind getting wet. They are very strong swimmers and their habitat is usually characterized by the presence of water bodies. Jaguars also need dense forest cover and a sufficient prey base in order to survive, but on occasion are also found in swamp areas, grasslands, and even dry scrub woodlands. Out of all the big cat species, jaguars are the most commonly associated with water.

3. Male Territories Are Twice the Size of Female Territories

In Mexico, male jaguars maintain an annual home range of about 100 square kilometers, while females occupy around 46 square kilometers. Males also cover more ground within a 24-hour period, about 2,600 meters to the female's 2,000 meters during the dry season. Males put more time into marking territory and defending their home ranges against other males, using methods like vocalization, scraping trees, and scent marking.

4. Jaguars Are Loners

Jaguars tend to roam their land by themselves, marking their territory to let other jaguars know what is theirs. Female jaguars raise their cubs by themselves, and the young jaguars begin to hunt on their own at around two years old.

5. They’re Often Mistaken for Leopards

Close up of two jaguars
Brian Mckay Photography / Getty Images 

Jaguars and leopards are often mistaken because they are both tawny-colored, spotted, big cats. The most obvious difference between the two is in the spots, or rosettes. If you look closely, jaguar spots are actually more fragmented and encircle smaller spots. Scientists believe that these spots help break up their outlines in the dense forest or grass, giving them more opportunities to hide from their prey. Jaguars also have a stockier build with shorter legs, a broad head, and hail from the Americas, while leopards are found in Africa and Asia.

6. Jaguars Hunt During Both Day and Night

Jaguars tend to be solitary creatures, living an elusive lifestyle that is both diurnal and nocturnal. Thanks to their night vision, jaguars are able to sneak up on their nocturnal prey armed with incredibly strong jaws and built-in camouflaging spots. A 2010 study found that in Belize, 70% of jaguar activity occurred at night, while in Venezuela it was anywhere from 40% to 60%.

7. They’ve Inspired Myths and Legends

Spending their lives stalking the forests of the Americas with their sleek, mysterious frame, it's no wonder that the jaguar has earned a prominent place in mythology and legend. In the Tupi-Guarani languages of South America, jaguar comes from the word "yaguara," which translates into “wild beast that overcomes its prey in a bound.” While references to jaguars throughout history in South America have been well documented, the cats also have a lesser known place in prehistoric Native American cultures such as the Pueblo, Southern Athabaskan, and Northern Pima tribes of the American Southwest.

8. They Roar

A jaguar in mid-roar
Bedrin-Alexander / Getty Images 

Lions, tigers, and jaguars have an elastic ligament called an epihyoideum behind their nose and mouth instead of a bony element like a domestic cat, giving them the ability to roar but not purr.

A male jaguar roar is louder than a female's—as females have softer vocalizations unless they are in heat—but the two call and respond to each other using a specific series of calls during mating season. Sadly, this is often taken advantage of by poachers, who have developed methods to mimic the unique call.

9. They Are Opportunistic Hunters 

Jaguars will eat almost anything. They have a wide variety of prey species including mammals, reptiles, and birds (both wild and livestock). Mostly hunting on the ground, they have also been known to climb trees and jump on their prey from above. It is estimated that 50% of their kills are larger prey, consumed over four days, which they do in order to preserve energy.

10. Jaguars' Tongues Help Them Eat

Jaguar licking his paw
Picture by Tambako the Jaguar / Getty Images

Aside from their incredibly strong bite, jaguars have rough tongues with spiny papillae that help them consume meat and lick the bones of their prey. Papillae also allow them to adequately clean themselves.

11. Black Jaguars Are Common

The result of a single dominant allele, about 10% of jaguars have evolved to have black (or melanistic) coats, though scientists aren't completely sure why. A study in 2020 found that 25% of the jaguars that lived in dense forests in Costa Rica were melanistic, much more than the global average, suggesting that the mutation occurs due to camouflage advantages.

The study also found that black jaguars were more active during the full moon. While from a distance it may seem like these jaguars are completely black in color, they actually have a base coat of black fur with dark black spots that are more visible from certain angles.

Fun fact: In big cats, the black panther is not a distinct species but rather a general name used to refer to any black-colored member of the Panthera animal group name, usually leopards, jaguars, and mountain lions.

A black, or melanistic, panther in the grass
Colin Langford / Getty Images 

12. They’ve Already Lost Half of Their Historic Range

Historically, the jaguar ranged from the southwestern United States and the Mexican border through the Amazon basin and into the Rio Negro of Argentina. Today, jaguars have been virtually eliminated from most of the northern regions such as Arizona and New Mexico, as well as Sonora state in Mexico, northern Brazil, Uruguay, and the grasslands of Argentina. 

The IUCN found that jaguars occupied only about 46% of their historic range in 2002, and by 2008 that number was estimated to have grown to 51%. The Amazon basin rainforest currently holds 57% of the global jaguar population. Remote wildlife cameras in Arizona have documented several jaguars periodically from 2011 to 2017, notably three males named “Macho B,” “El Jefe,” and “Sombra.”

Save the Jaguar

  • Support anti-poaching legislation by signing petitions and spreading the word about threats to jaguars.
  • Donate to the organizations that support global conservation work, such as the World Wildlife Fund's symbolic jaguar adoption program.
  • Contribute to the conservation of jaguar forest habitats, especially the Amazon, by purchasing products that have been sustainably sourced. For example, look for the FSC-certified label on your wood products.
View Article Sources
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