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Bio Facts: Jaguar

Jaguar
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Common Name:

Jaguar

Scientific Name:

Panthera onca

Family:

Felidae

Order:

Carnivora

Class:

Mammalia

Range:

Southwestern United States and Mexico south through Central and South America as far as Patagonia.

Habitat:

Dense rain forest, arid scrubland, reed thickets, and shoreline forests with reliable water sources.

Description:

The background of the jaguar’s coat is a tawny-yellow, and lightened to whitish on the throat and belly.  The jaguar is marked with small isolated spots on the head and neck with dark open ring structures, called rosettes, on the sides and flank that generally contain one to four dark spots inside the rings. Along the middle of the jaguar’s back, a row of black spots may merge into a solid line.  Melanistic jaguars have been observed in South America, resulting in coats that are heavily pigmented, appearing almost black as in the black panther (leopard), with the rosette pattern visible only in strong light.  At least one albino individual, with pink eyes and white claws, has been reported. External measurements of an adult male: total length, 6.25 feet; tail, 1.75 feet; female, 5 feet long and tail 1.4 feet long; height at shoulder of a large male, 2.3 feet. Male jaguars average 150 to 250 pounds, with females averaging 110 to 175 pounds.

Life Expectancy:

Approximately 20 years in the wild, up to 22 years in captivity

Sexual Maturity:

3-4 years of age

Diet:

In the wild, they feed on animals of various sizes from frogs to capybaras.  In the Zoo, they are fed carnivore diet and knuckle bones.

Status:

Endangered, CITES I, IUCN – Low Risk, Near Threatened, SSP

Behaviors:

Data suggest that jaguars are predominantly solitary.  Unlike other solitary cat species, however, home ranges may occasionally overlap.  It is suggested that in areas of high prey density, jaguars can share limited ranges.  One jaguar tagged by a biologist was next seen 500 miles away in a new hunting location.
Most felids kill their prey with a throat or neck bite.  Jaguars, on the other hand, often bite through the temporal bones of the skull, which results in instant death.

The den is a rocky cave or the security of a dense, thorny thicket.  The mating season is not specific but usually occurs in the spring in the extreme north.  Two to four young are born after a gestation period varying from 93 to 110 days.  Parents mate at least for the season of parenthood, and both cooperate in rearing the young, although most of the responsibility falls to the mother.

The kittens are covered with woolly fur, are heavily spotted at birth, and have their eyes closed.  By six weeks of age, they are as large as a house cat and begin to follow their parents.  The family unit is maintained until the kittens are nearly a year old, at which time they begin to fend for themselves.

Adaptations:

Jaguars are included in the group of the four roaring cats. The roar has been likened to a series of hoarse coughs, which function as a means of proclaiming territorial boundaries and announcing their presence.

The jaguar is an excellent swimmer and climber.  It is almost as arboreal as the leopard.  Most hunting is done on the ground and at night.  Prey is stalked or ambushed, and carcasses may be dragged some distance to a sheltered spot.

Special Interest:

The jaguar is the third largest cat of the world, ranking behind the tiger and African lion.  Jaguars are the largest cats in the Western Hemisphere.  In spite of their large size and powerful build, however, jaguars are shy and retiring.  They seldom, if ever, attack man unless cornered.  In fact, Amazonian Indians tell of jaguars emerging from the forest to play with village children.

The jaguar is the only member of the genus Panthera (big cats) to be found in the Americas where it is considered the New World equivalent of the leopard.  In comparison with the leopard, the jaguar is generally larger and much stockier, with a broad heavy head, much shorter legs and tail.  Interestingly, the rosettes of the leopard and the jaguar are almost identical with the exception of the jaguar having spots “inside” the rosettes where the leopard has none.

Jaguars occurred in Florida about 10,000 years ago.  Before 1900, they inhabited Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, California, and the Grand Canyon in Colorado.  Recently there have been confirmed sightings of jaguars in southern Arizona.

Their name, yaguara, as coined by South American Indians, means “a beast that kills its prey with one bound.”

Since the early 1970’s, the jaguar has been on the list of totally protected animals in most South American countries. Belize has the world’s only park, opened
in 1984, dedicated to the preservation of the jaguar.

Melanism is found in jaguars as well as in leopards.  The term “black panther” is commonly used for those cats because their coat appears to be completely black.  Both the jaguar and leopard can appear to look black but the coat is actually dark brown and has black rosettes (spots) like the normal coat pattern that are easily seen in bright light.

Folklore:

According to one Indian myth, the jaguar acquired its spotted coat by daubing mud on its body with its paws.

The Tucano Indians of the Amazon believe the roar of the jaguar is the sound of thunder; other primitive tribes believe it to be the god of darkness; some believe the spots on the jaguar’s coat represent the stars and heavens with eclipses caused by it swallowing the sun.

The Olmecs, the earliest known Mexican civilization, believed in a man-jaguar transformation (“were-jaguars”) that had characteristics of both man and jaguar. “Were-jaguars” are thought to be the forerunners of Aztec and Mayan rain gods.

In some Amazonian societies, powerful shamans (holy men) were believed to turn into jaguars after their death and could call on jaguar spirits to punish or satisfy their followers, as they desired.

Conservation:

Despite the historical lack of precise population estimates, jaguars are known to be rare or extinct in many parts of their former range.  Estimates indicate that the total current wild population is greater than 10,000; however, several subspecies are reported as rare. The United States population consists of only isolated stray animals crossing the Mexico/U.S. border.

Threats to the jaguar include habitat loss, hunting, and development throughout their range. Hunting and export are still allowed in some Central American countries and restrictions in other countries are poorly enforced, even if hunting is prohibited.  Loss of forest habitat is a major concern for the decline of the species as estimates of deforestation rates in Latin America are among the highest in the world.

Jacksonville Zoo History:

The first recorded jaguar appears in the Zoo’s animal collection in May 1958, and the species has been part of our collection since then. Almost all captive born black jaguars found in North America are descendants of “Zorro”. A wild caught black male, he bred here at our Zoo for several years through the 1970s. More recently, Jacksonville imported jaguars from Venezuela in July 1998 and from Guyana in January 2006.

Last Revised:

2007