Once inhabiting an area that included all of South America, Central America and as far north as Southern California and Arizona, the jaguar (Panthera onca) is now found only in Central America and parts of South America. Its numbers have been depleted by hunting for fur and by habitat destruction.

Somewhat resembling the African leopard, the jaguar can be distinguished by dark spots within the larger rosette markings, a stockier body, shorter tail and massive head.

The jaguar has the second strongest jaw of any land mammal, strong enough to crush through a turtle shell. Jaguars are excellent swimmers and supplement a diet of forest animals, from mice to deer, with fish, frogs, turtles and small alligators. Jaguars fish by flipping fish out of rivers with their paws.

Jaguars are solitary creatures, like most cats. Males and females seek each other out only to mate. The female gives birth to one to four cubs which stay with her for two years before leaving to find their own territory. Jaguars are not generally a threat to humans, in fact, they have been known to follow humans for miles through the forest, as if escorting humans off their territory. Their strength, beauty and mystique contributed to their status as the chief figure of Aztec and Incan mythology.

Most people are familiar with the term “black panther,” however there is no such creature as a separate species of cat. Both leopards and jaguars can exhibit a genetic trait called melanism in which dark pigment covers their whole coat but the darker spots can still be seen in certain light.


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