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The Jaguar (Panthera onca)

Updated: Jun 17, 2021

Jaguars are at the top of the natural food chain in South America. They are the 3rd largest member of the panther genus. They are often confused with their Leopard cousins in Africa. They are the true kings and queens of the jungle. Read on.


You can tell the difference between Leopards and Jaguars because of their spots. Leopards have semi-encircled spots with a black lining, an orangish center, and no spot in the middle of the circle. Jaguars have large dark semi-encircled spots with dark black spot/s in the middle against a bronzish-orange background.

Leopard Spot Pattern. Encircled black spots with no dot in the middle
Leopard Spots: Source: Istock Photo

In the image above, notice the rosette pattern of the leopard coat but with no spots in the center of the rosette. Compare that with the Jaguar coat below. Notice the singular or multiple spots in the center of the rosettes.

Jaguar in the snow
Source: Reddit: Big Cat Pics

Family Tree

The Panthera name is actually a misnomer categorizing all spotted cats. DNA evidence has revealed that the lion, tiger, leopard, jaguar, snow leopard, and clouded leopard all share a great-great-great grandpa, but jaguars are most closely related to Leopards than to tigers. The Panthera name simply stuck even though the original meaning no longer applied to all groups. As lions and tigers are part of the Panthera group, they also could be called Panthers but this is not common. More commonly, leopards and jaguars are designated as panthers, in particular, the melanistic individuals. All the biggest cats belong to the Panthera genus. Mountain lions, aka pumas and catamounts, are large but they are more closely related to domestic cats than a lion. Jaguars are considered the 3rd largest big cat and can weigh up to 210lbs.


Jaguars are ambush predators and love the water just as their tiger cousins do. Jaguars hunt capybara (the world’s largest rodent) and caiman (a close cousin of alligators). Jaguars usually sneak up on caiman and bite into their braincase from the back of the head. Yes, they have jaws powerful enough to pierce an armored reptile's brain! In fact, their bite force is comparable to lions and tigers of equal size.

Fun Fact: Some jaguars are black. This trait seems to be selected by nature as black jaguar numbers appear to be increasing. In jaguars, the dark-skinned trait appears to have shifted from a recessive trait to a more dominant trait. In leopards, melanism is seen but is recessive.

Black Panther – Image Source Wikipedia
Black Panther – Image Source Wikipedia

So, if you see a Black Panther in the Americas, it is most likely a Jaguar. The Black Panther superhero then could be the melanistic version of any of the members of the Panthera genus. However, since Wakanda is in Africa, and the panther nomenclature is usually reserved for leopards and jaguars, The Black Panther is most likely a black leopard. :-) The Black Leopard just doesn't have the same ring to it.


Jaguars are considered near-threatened by the IUCN. This status is expected to worsen as industry and human expansion continue. More and more incidents between jaguars and humans are being reported with many jaguars being shot to death as they stumble upon convenient livestock food sources.

I hope you enjoyed this segment. Watch the Amazing Video Footage of a Jaguar Hunting a caiman below! You will quickly see why this feline is the most powerful predator in South America.

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