- CLASS: Mammalia (Mammals)
- ORDER: Carnivora
- FAMILY: Felidae
- GENUS: Panthera
- SPECIES: onca
Jaguars prowl the imagination: Sleek, powerful, and elusive, jaguars stalk the Americas and are revered by all who share their realm. Their mesmerizing gaze and hunting prowess have earned them a prominent place in mythology and legend. Their beauty, strength, and adaptability have earned them the respect of feline admirers around the world. Jaguars are some pretty cool cats.
As the only big cat species in the New World, jaguars have dominated the rituals and stories of the people who live there. Depictions of jaguars are found in ruins all along Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, where the jaguar was a chief figure in religious rites. Some tales say that jaguars can move between worlds because they are at home both in the trees and on the ground, and they hunt both day and night. Today, the jaguar continues to be considered a symbol of royalty, intelligence, beauty, and strength.
Because their fur color and markings are similar, jaguars are often mistaken for leopards. And the likeness isn’t just skin deep—both cat species have similar habitats and roles in their ecosystems. The difference is that leopards hail from Africa and Asia, while jaguars are all American (North, Central, and South American, that is). Jaguars are also more heavily built and muscled than a leopard.
You can spot the difference, too: jaguars have dark spots on their backs, called rosettes, with an irregular broken border and often a spot in the center. Leopards also have dark rosettes on a tawny coat, but if you look closely at each rosette, you’ll see that there is no spot inside, and the rosette edge is unbroken. Scientists believe the coloring of spotted cats helps them hide from their prey, breaking up their outline in forests or grasslands.
Most jaguars have tawny-colored fur with black rosettes, but some have black-on-black, or melanistic, coloration. Usually jaguars that are found in darker rain forest areas are black. So, are they black panthers? No, there is no such animal! “Panther” is just an old general term that comes from the Panthera animal group name and is sometimes used to describe leopards, jaguars, and mountain lions (cougars, pumas).
HABITAT AND DIET
Jaguars are built for life in the tropical rain forest, with muscular limbs and large paws to climb trees, pad along the forest floor, and even swim in rivers and streams. They enjoy a good dip and are strong swimmers. In fact, they typically live near water and have a taste for aquatic creatures. They can also survive in other habitats, too, from grasslands to deserts. Jaguars make their dens in caves, canyons, and even in the ruins of old buildings.
Like other cats, jaguars have eyes that are adapted for night hunting. One key element is their eyeshine, caused by a mirror-like structure called the tapetum lucidum. The tapetum lucidum in the back of their eyes reflects light into the retinas, nearly doubling the cat’s ability to see. If you have a pet cat or dog, you can see this eyeshine at night. Jaguars see less detail and color in daylight but have better vision at night.
Jaguars stalk and ambush their ground-dwelling prey at night, instead of chasing prey like cheetahs and lions do. They can run pretty quickly, but this is not an important skill for jaguars. Their large jaw muscles allow them to kill their prey by piercing the skull with their sharp teeth. This enables them to eat spectacled caimans and hard-shelled reptiles like turtles and tortoises. Jaguars have been observed sitting quietly at the water’s edge, occasionally tapping the surface with their tail to attract fish. But most of the jaguar’s prey is larger. Researchers have counted over 85 species in the jaguar diet, including peccaries, deer, tapirs, cattle, and capybaras.
At the San Diego Zoo, the jaguars are fed a ground meat diet made for zoo carnivores, large bones, and an occasional thawed rabbit.
Solitary by nature, jaguars usually avoid each other. The cats leave claw marks and scent marks with their urine and feces as they roam their territory to let other jaguars know the area is “taken.”
Jaguars, lions, tigers, and leopards are the only big cats that can roar. They roar to scare off other animals, defend their territory, and attract a mate. A male’s roar sounds more like a bark, followed by a growl; a female produces a sound like a coughing roar. It is thought that roaring helps bring a male and female together for breeding.
The mother jaguar raises her cubs alone. One to four cubs are born with coarse, wooly fur and eyes closed, opening at 3 to 13 days. Their teeth appear by one month of age. By the time they are six to eight weeks old, the cubs are able to follow their mother. They continue to nurse until they are five to six months old, although they eat meat caught by their mother. Male cubs grow more quickly than any female siblings and by about two years old are about 50 percent heavier. The youngsters start to hunt on their own by 15 to 18 months of age, but continue to stay near their mother until they are about 2 years old, when they are ready to claim their own territory.
AT THE ZOO
The San Diego Zoo received our first jaguar, a male, in 1925. Another male, named Dick, arrived in 1932, and a female joined him in 1939. This pair produced 16 cubs during their time together! Jaguars and their extinct relatives, saber-toothed cats, are an important part of our region’s history.
Some animals attain legendary status because of their beauty or other amazing traits. For more than 21 years, Orson, a black jaguar, became quite a celebrity and drew fans to the Zoo. Some even came weekly to see his tug-of-war matches against his keepers over a shank of meat suspended on a pulley system—of course, Orson always won!
Today, the San Diego Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey habitat, which highlights animals found in our region during the Pleistocene era and relates them to their modern-day counterparts, is home to our jaguars.
Nindiri came to the San Diego Zoo in 2008 from the Brevard Zoo in Florida, where she was named in a contest (Nindiri is a peak off a larger volcano named Masaya, which is her mother’s name). The volcano is described as semi-active, yet Nindiri is anything but that! She is lovingly referred to as a little firecracker. While very small for a jaguar, weighing in at only around 80 pounds (36 kilograms), Nindiri has a feisty personality and can be rather intense. Her keeper likes to say that Nindiri makes up for her small stature with attitude.
In March 2011, male jaguar Guapo, whose name means “handsome” or “good-looking,” moved into our cat complex in Elephant Odyssey. And on April 26, 2012, we welcomed the birth of two cubs, a male named Tikal and a female named Maderas. Tikal and Maderas have since moved to other zoos as part of the jaguar breeding program.
In March 2015, Nindiri gave birth to a cub, Valerio. His playful antics as a youngster attracted a lot of added attention to the jaguars. Valerio moved to another zoo in 2017.
Keepers indulge Nindiri’s love for a certain type of enrichment: she pounces on tilapia they shoot into her pool through a special fish injector. She really has fun playing in the water and practicing natural predatory behaviors. Guapo is far more mellow: he loves to rest his head against the side of the pool while watching keepers at work and enjoying their attention.
Jaguars are among the top predators in their habitat, so the adult cats don't have much to fear other than humans. The coats of jaguars have always been important to people who share their habitat. Unfortunately, the demand for jaguar skins spread to the outside world. Commercial fur hunting, especially in the 1960s, took a terrible toll on jaguars. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) now outlaws the sale of jaguar skins internationally. Unfortunately, jaguar coats are still illegally bought and sold in countries where jaguars live.
Another problem for jaguars is loss of habitat. With less and less wild prey available to them, jaguars have started feeding on livestock. Ranchers often respond by trapping and poisoning them. Other threats to jaguars involve deforestation due to logging, mining, and farming, which breaks up their habitat into fragments, leaving less food and fewer mates. Estimates say that there are about 10,000 jaguars left in the wild, but their numbers are decreasing rapidly.
To help the last of the American big cats, we first must find out more about where they live, how large their territories are, and how they spend their days and raise their young. Researchers use camera traps, which take a photo when a large animal crosses in front of the camera, and place radio collars on some jaguars to track their daily movements. San Diego Zoo Global partners with the Wildlands Network and Latin American conservationists to study, monitor, and protect jaguars. Combined with education outreach to the local community, we hope to decrease human-jaguar conflict.
By joining the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Conservancy, you will be helping this endangered big cat survive. Your help is needed today more than ever as the jaguar’s rain forest habitat continues to disappear.