Jaguar Experts Answer Your Questions!

By Ross Rosenthal
Marketing and Communications Specialist

Jaguar reeds.

November 29, 2021

Edited by: Rafael Hoogesteijn, DVM, Conflict Program Director, Jaguar Program

On November 29, we celebrate International Jaguar Day! Panthera’s team of big cat experts has answered some of your most frequently asked questions about jaguar behavior, conservation and culture below.  

Jaguar going into water.

What do jaguars eat and how do they hunt?  

Panthera Costa Rica and Mesoamerica Director Roberto Salom Pérez tells us that jaguars have evolved to hunt by surprise, instead of running behind prey for large distances, as other wild cats do in open areas like in African savannas. They get close to their prey and pounce quickly, with a powerful bite on the neck or the back of the skull. More than 85 different species have been identified in the jaguar´s diet throughout Latin America, from mammals to fish and even sea turtles. Jaguars in the Brazilian Pantanal have been known to spring into the water to catch caimans with a powerful bite. While being relatively adaptable, they tend to prefer medium and large size mammals, and are the only felines uniquely adapted to prey on the large and hard-skinned reptiles of the American tropics. 

Where do jaguars live?  

Jaguars are highly adaptable and exist in 18 countries in Latin America (from Mexico to Argentina) in a variety of habitats, including swamps, tropical forests, scrublands and along the riparian forests that lace rivers of semi-desert areas. They also thrive in a variety of wet habitats, including flooded forests of the Amazon and the Brazilian Pantanal wetlands. Although lone, dispersing male jaguars have been identified in the southern United States, no females and no breeding population have existed there for nearly 100 years.  

Jaguar on shore.

How can you tell the difference between a jaguar and a leopard?  

While leopards live in Africa and Asia, jaguars can be found across the Americas. If you look closely, you can easily tell the difference between the coats of jaguars and leopards. While leopards are covered in more solid spots, jaguars sport blocky rosettes with distinct internal spots. There are other physical differences between the two as well. Jaguars, on average, are stockier and heavier than leopards, and have more massive and stronger heads. Leopards have leaner, more agile builds and longer tails that assist their arboreal excursions. 

Can jaguars purr?  

Most big cats, including jaguars, cannot purr. Instead, they are known for their famous roars. This iconic vocalization is due to the hyoid bone in the cat’s throat being attached to a specialized stretching ligament.  

What are the threats facing jaguars?  

The species is threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation, conflict with local people due to the real or perceived threat posed to livestock, overhunting of the jaguar’s prey by local people and their perceived threat to humans, despite the fact that humans are never attacked or killed by jaguars, unless by baited jaguars or in hunting situations. Recent fires have also destroyed a great deal of jaguar habitat in Brazil and Bolivia. Or, between 1990 and 2010, clearing of land for economic development and resource extraction destroyed 25 percent of Guatemala’s natural forest, which could have been jaguar habitat. When jaguar prey is overhunted, it leads to livestock conflict as well, as jaguars are more likely to kill domestic animals if their natural prey is reduced. At our Jofre Velho Ranch in the northern Pantanal of Brazil, our team is working on innovative and effective ways to mitigate the problems posed by jaguar-livestock conflict that show that the coexistence with these large felines is possible.  

What do jaguars symbolize?  

According to Roberto Salom Pérez, jaguars have always been an important cultural and religious symbol for ancient civilizations throughout Latin America denoting strength and power. They have been considered deities and messengers to the gods, and they are well represented in archaeological pieces like pottery, earrings, necklaces, stone pieces and more. In the present day, jaguars are the largest feline in the Americas, symbolizing well-preserved areas based on their value as an umbrella species and effect on prey populations, and subsequently on vegetation and hydric cycles, due to their position at the top of the food chain.  

Jaguar tree.

Do jaguars climb trees?  

Yes, they sometimes do. They like to rest in trees for cover, hunt arboreal prey species, and can ambush aquatic prey species like caimans by lying on overhanging branches. Still, they don’t spend nearly as much time being arboreal as other cats such as leopards. However, according to Rafael Hoogesteijn, Director of Panthera’s Jaguar Conflict Program, in parts of flooded rainforest in the Amazon (Várzea) where large areas are completely flooded for many months (e.g., Mamirauá), jaguars spend their time swimming from tree to tree, predating on monkeys and sloths and resting on the trees, as there is no "terra firme".  

Do jaguars attack humans?  

Panthera Belize Director Bart J. Harmsen reminds us that humans are not part of a jaguar’s diet. Attacks on humans are very rare and usually triggered as a defense mechanism when humans threaten the jaguar by chasing it with dogs or firing at it. Unprovoked attacks have happened very infrequently when jaguars baited to be shown to tourists lose their instinctive fear of humans. Jaguars are naturally shy and will avoid human interactions. They came to the Americas long before the advent of indigenous peoples, so humans are not and have never been on the jaguar’s menu. 

Why do jaguars have rosettes?  

The jaguar’s rosettes help it blend with the understory and the light/shadow interplay of the sunlight that is filtered through the canopy in the forest to stay hidden and be able to attack its prey by surprise.

Jaguar on shore 2.

Where can I see jaguars in the wild?  

Jaguars are a very secretive species, and they don´t like to be seen. If you have been in tropical rainforests frequently, it is very likely that you have never seen a jaguar due to the density of the vegetation, but a jaguar may have seen you several times. However, there are areas where you can have a higher chance of seeing this animal, especially where there is a specific resource for them that would make them more tolerable of human presence (e.g., abundant prey, located along rivers in the dry season in non-hunting areas). A place with a higher chance to see jaguars is the Pantanal in Brazil. Dr. Hoogesteijn suggests that to see jaguars from boats, the Northern Pantanal area of Porto Jofre is the best, and to see jaguars from cars or trucks, one could go to Fazendas San Francisco, Caiman and Barranco Alto in the southern Pantanal (Miranda and Rio Negro Pantanal Regions). Moreover, in some Costa Rican national parks, there are good opportunities to see them.  

How can we save jaguars?  

Together, we are securing and linking jaguar habitats and populations in the Jaguar Corridor, managing critical protected areas, advocating to create protected areas where needed and collaborating with local communities, farmers and ranchers to reduce conflict and increase human tolerance. Panthera has worked across 11 of the jaguar range countries, identifying and attempting to connect possible jaguar habitat over boundary areas, and then working with local officials on creating wildlife habitat allowing for passage of jaguar populations. To reduce human-jaguar conflict, our team is also teaching locals who practice animal husbandry new techniques to coexist with jaguars, such as through the construction of predator-proof enclosures and many other anti-depredation effective strategies.  

Learn more about jaguars.