March 15, 2015 in Animals & Insects
The jaguar (Panthera onca), is a very large species of cat native to the Americas. While there were a number of large cat species present in the Americas up until the end of the last ice age, most of these disappeared many thousands of years ago — the jaguar is one of the only ones remaining, and the only Panthera species native to the Americas in recent times.
The species actually, until only very recently, had a much more expansive range though — and was found as far north as Missouri and as far east as Louisiana until relatively recently. The southern borders of the jaguar’s range in South America have receded in recent times as well, retracting to the species’s densest populations in the Amazon.
The jaguar is the third biggest felid currently in the world — after the tiger and the lion. And it is the largest felid in the Western Hemisphere. As it stands, the species is currently found from the southwestern US, down through most of Central America, and all the way down to Paraguay and Argentina. The northern portion of that range is only very sparsely populated though — it’s not known if the individuals seen in Arizona in recent years constitute a viable population or not.
At first glance, jaguars may look quite a bit like leopards — a closer look though will reveal considerable differences. A much stockier build, shorter limbs, a love of water and swimming, and many behavioral characteristics that are similar to those of the tiger (and not particularly similar to those of leopards).
In addition to its strong association with bodies of water, jaguars are heavily associated with rainforest environments — but it can be found nearly anywhere, from open grassy terrains, to oak forests.
The species is mostly solitary, and spends most of its life as an opportunistic stalk-and-ambush predator — one at the very top of the food chain in its native range. As a result of its position as a keystone species, it has an outsized effect on its environment — regulating the whole ecosystem and in particular the populations of its prey.
Worth noting, is that even among the big cats jaguars have extremely powerful bites — being able to easily crush the shells of armored reptiles, as well as, interestingly, employ a somewhat strange novel killing method. This unusual killing method involves biting directly through the skull of its prey, between the ears, crushing/damaging the brain.
As with practically all of the remaining megafauna animals of the world, jaguars are threatened with extinction — and population numbers have been falling rapidly in recent years with the ongoing loss of its habitat. Other causes of decline include: conflict with ranchers and farmers, the illegal wildlife trade, and, to a lesser degree, pollution.
Owing to the many impressive qualities of the jaguar, and its overall ‘charisma’, the animal has featured prominently in the stories of most of the peoples and civilizations that have had regular contact with it — the Olmecs, the Maya, the Aztecs, and the Mississippian culture, for instance.
The word ‘jaguar’ actually comes to us via one of the Tupi–Guarani languages — it’s assumed via the Amazonian trade language (lingua franca) Tupinambá. The word yaguara means “beast” — while the word that is used specifically for the jaguar is yaguareté (“true/real beast”).
DNA Evidence Of Origin
DNA evidence suggests that lions, tigers, leopards, and jaguars, shared a common ancestor some 6-10 million years ago — with the emergence of the Panthera around 2-3.8 million years ago. Some evidence points towards the clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) being basal to the group — which means, roughly, that it’s the species most similar to the common ancestor.
While one going on looks would assume that jaguars are most closely related to leopards, DNA evidence doesn’t back this up. Also, fossils of extinct species, such as the European jaguar (Panthera gombaszoegensis) and the American lion (Panthera atrox), show characteristics of both the lion and the jaguar. (Perhaps cross breeding?)
Various analyses of jaguar mitochondrial DNA suggest a species’s lineage dating back to between 280,000 and 510,000 years ago — in other words, out of step with the evidence from fossil records.
Subspecies & Geographical Variation
It’s hard to say what exactly constitutes a subspecies in the broader jaguar species identification. There is clear North-South variation, as well as within various regions. In short, though, the variation within supposed subspecies is greater than between them. From the looks of it this suggests that individuals travel and move around quite a lot.
A genetic study in 2001 confirmed this lack of clear geographical subspecies boundaries — though some major geographical barriers (the Amazon River as an example) did appear to limit (but not stop) the exchange of genes between different populations.
Jaguar General Facts
Jaguar sizes and weights vary quite a lot, with the typical range for weight being between 125-215 lbs. Males can get much heavier than this though — getting up to 350 lbs or so in weight. And females can be much lighter — as low in weight as 80 lbs.
The cats typically measure 4-6 feet long when measured from nose to base of tail — making them the shortest of any of the big cats. They’re also distinctly short limbed — and as a result, very densely and powerfully built — being well suited to both swimming and climbing. Jaguars typically stand at about 25-30 inches tall at the shoulder.
As far as population genetics go, jaguars amongst the southern populations tend to be bigger than those amongst the northern ones — which is pretty typical of most animal species, the closer to the poles that you get, the bigger that the animals do.
Also worth noting, forest-living jaguars tend to be darker in color than those living in open areas (with ‘black panther’ melanism being more common amongst the forest-living).
As stated above, jaguars are highly skilled climbers and swimmers, as well as being very strong — for instance, jaguars are known to drag animals as heavy as 800 lbs for distances of 20-40 feet in one go. They regularly hunt animals in the 500-800 lb range, and possess the strongest bite (as adjusted for body size) amongst all the felids — tied with the clouded leopard, and ahead of the lions and tigers.
As far as coat colors go — this varies somewhat, with yellow, reddish, and black shadings all known. Color morphisms include a near-black melanistic form commonly referred to as a “black panther”. This form occurs in around 6% of the population — placing it well above the rate of mutation. What this means is that some selection processes are selecting for it — considering that it is more common amongst jungle dwellers, camouflage would be a good guess. This is supported by the fact that jaguars often hunt at night.
Amelanistic individuals occur occasionally (rarely) as well — as with lions and tigers, these occur closer to the baseline rate of mutation though.
Cubs are weaned at around 3 months, remain in the den for around 6 months, and then begin accompanying the mother on hunts for 1-2 years after that — before leaving to establish their own territory. Young males are typically nomadic for a number of years before carving out their own territory.
Lifespan in the wild is typically 12-15 years, but they can live substantially longer. In captivity they are known to live for up to 23 years.
Jaguars are generally solitary, and mostly just meet up to court and mate, but some socializing amongst noncourting individuals has been observed before. Males typically possess much larger ranges than females, and a typical male territry will overlap with that of several females. Females generally avoid each other, despite often possessing overlapping territories. Male territories don’t overlap, and are fiercely defended. Territories are typically marked out with scratch marks, urine, and feces.
Like the other big cats, the jaguar is capable of roaring and does so to warn territorial and mating competitors away; intensive bouts of counter-calling between individuals have been observed in the wild. Their roar often resembles a repetitive cough, and they may also vocalize mews and grunts. Mating fights between males occur, but are rare, and aggression avoidance behavior has been observed in the wild. When it occurs, conflict is typically over territory: a male’s range may encompass that of two or three females, and he will not tolerate intrusions by other adult males.
The jaguar is often described as nocturnal, but is more specifically crepuscular (peak activity around dawn and dusk). Both sexes hunt, but males travel farther each day than females, befitting their larger territories. The jaguar may hunt during the day if game is available and is a relatively energetic feline, spending as much as 50–60% of its time active. The jaguar’s elusive nature and the inaccessibility of much of its preferred habitat make it a difficult animal to sight, let alone study.
The jaguar is something of a generalist carnivore, and will take pretty much any prey animal that it comes across — whether deer, caimans (crocodiles), tapirs (see pic below), dogs, capybaras, birds, monkeys, frogs, fish, turtles, sloths, mice, armadillos, or anacondas. They are also known to kill cattle and horses — hence the motive for ranchers to poison and shoot them.
Interestingly, there’s a fair mount of evidence that Jaguars will consume some plant foods — including, apparently, the roots of Banisteriopsis caapi (ayahuasca).
While the jaguar often employs the deep throat-bite and suffocation technique typical among Panthera, it sometimes uses a killing method unique amongst cats: it pierces directly through the temporal bones of the skull between the ears of prey (especially the capybara) with its canine teeth, piercing the brain. This may be an adaptation to “cracking open” turtle shells; following the late Pleistocene extinctions, armored reptiles such as turtles would have formed an abundant prey base for the jaguar.
The skull bite is employed with mammals in particular; with reptiles such as the caiman, the jaguar may leap onto the back of the prey and sever the cervical vertebrae, immobilizing the target. While capable of cracking turtle shells, the jaguar may simply smash into the shell with its paw and scoop out the flesh. When attacking sea turtles, including the huge Leatherback sea turtle which weighs about 849 lb on average, as they try to nest on beaches, the jaguar will bite at the head, often beheading the prey, before dragging it off to eat. Reportedly, while hunting horses, a jaguar may leap onto their back, place one paw on the muzzle and another on the nape and then twist, dislocating the neck. Local people have anecdotally reported that when hunting a pair of horses bound together, the jaguar will kill one horse and then drag it while the other horse, still living, is dragged in their wake. With prey such as smaller dogs, a paw swipe to the skull may be sufficient to kill it.
The preferred hunt strategy of jaguars appears to be walking slowly down forest paths listening for and trailing prey, before explosively pouncing. Jaguars appear to prefer to attack from blind spots (sensibly).
The species’ ambushing abilities are considered nearly peerless in the animal kingdom by both indigenous people and field researchers, and are probably a product of its role as an apex predator in several different environments. The ambush may include leaping into water after prey, as a jaguar is quite capable of carrying a large kill while swimming; its strength is such that carcasses as large as a heifer can be hauled up a tree to avoid flood levels.
On killing prey, the jaguar will drag the carcass to a thicket or other secluded spot. It begins eating at the neck and chest, rather than the midsection. The heart and lungs are consumed, followed by the shoulders. The daily food requirement of a 75 lb animal, at the extreme low end of the species’ weight range, has been estimated at 3.1 lb. For captive animals in the 110–130 lb range, more than 4.4 lb of meat daily are recommended. In the wild, consumption is naturally more erratic; they expend considerable energy in the capture and kill of prey, and they may consume up to 55 lb of meat at one feeding, followed by periods of famine. Unlike all other Panthera species, jaguars very rarely attack humans. In most of the few cases where a jaguar has turned to taking a human, the animal was either old with damaged teeth or wounded.
Periodic sightings (and photos, via camera traps) of jaguars in New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona, have occurred over the years, but it’s not known if these are simply ranging individuals or if they comprise a viable population. (It’s worth noting here that fossil evidence of the earlier, now extinct, populations living in the US show it as being larger than extant populations. With males getting as heavy as an estimated 420 lbs.)
As mentioned before, jaguars are often associated with river systems and swamps — there’s much fossil evidence links them to the Mississippi River delta, for instance.
Interestingly, there’s some pretty good evidence that there’s a number of introduced nonnative, melanistic leopards or jaguars living in the rainforests around Sydney, Australia. It’s not clear if these are Jaguars or leopards — considering the location, one would probably assume leopards imported as exotic ‘pets’ and then released, but who knows.
Jaguar populations are, more or less all of them, currently rapidly declining — and the species is considered to be threatened with the possibility of extinction in the relatively near future. With rapidly increasing rates of deforestation and habitat loss in the region this isn’t at all surprising.
The major risks to the jaguar include deforestation across its habitat, increasing competition for food with human beings, poaching, hurricanes in northern parts of its range, and the behavior of ranchers who will often kill the cat where it preys on livestock. When adapted to the prey, the jaguar has been shown to take cattle as a large portion of its diet; while land clearance for grazing is a problem for the species, the jaguar population may have increased when cattle were first introduced to South America, as the animals took advantage of the new prey base. This willingness to take livestock has induced ranch owners to hire full-time jaguar hunters, and the cat is often shot on sight.
Hunting of jaguars is restricted to “problem animals” in Brazil, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico and Peru, while trophy hunting is still permitted in Bolivia. The species has no legal protection in Ecuador or Guyana.
Total population number estimates are hard to come by, but they are diminishing, and population densities are known to be thinning in most regions.
Here’s some background on the recent history of jaguars in the US:
Cabot’s 1544 map has a drawing of jaguar ranging over the Pennsylvania and Ohio valleys. Historically, the jaguar was recorded in far eastern Texas, and the northern parts of Arizona and New Mexico. However, since the 1940s, the jaguar has been limited to the southern parts of these states. Although less reliable than zoological records (Author’s note: I disagree), native American artefacts with possible jaguar motifs range from the Pacific Northwest to Pennsylvania and Florida.
Jaguars were rapidly eliminated in the United States. The last female jaguar in the United States was shot by a hunter in Arizona’s White Mountains in 1963. Arizona outlawed jaguar hunting in 1969, but by then no females remained and over the next 25 years only two male jaguars were found (and killed) in Arizona. Then in 1996, Warner Glenn, a rancher and hunting guide from Douglas, Arizona, came across a jaguar in the Peloncillo Mountains and became a jaguar researcher, placing webcams which recorded four more Arizona jaguars. None of the other four male jaguars sighted in Arizona in the last 15 years have been seen since 2006. Then, in 2009, a male jaguar named Macho B, died shortly after being radio-collared by Arizona Game and Fish Department (AGFD) officials in 2009.
In the Macho B incident, a former AGFD subcontractor pleaded guilty to violating the endangered species act for trapping the cat and a Game and Fish employee was fired for lying to federal investigators. In 2011, a 200-pound male jaguar was photographed near Cochise in southern Arizona by a hunter after being treed by his dogs (the animal left the scene unharmed). A second 2011 sighting of an Arizona jaguar was reported by a Homeland Security border pilot in June 2011, and conservation researchers sighted two jaguars within 30 miles of the Mexico/US border in 2010. In September 2012, a jaguar was photographed in the Santa Rita Mountains of Arizona, the second such sighting in this region in two years. Apparently this jaguar has been photographed numerous times over the past nine months through June 2013.
Jaguar History & Appearances In Storytelling
As mentioned towards the beginning of the article, many of the civilizations of the last few thousand years in the Americas made use of jaguar motifs and characters in art and stories.
In particular, the Olmec civilization — which thrived between the years of 1600 BC and 400 BC (3600 – 2400 years ago) — had a very interesting “were-jaguar” motif. These ‘were-jaguars’ are variously humans with jaguar characteristics, or occasionally highly stylized jaguar depictions. These depictions were common throughout the whole span of the civilization’s dominant period — unfortunately we have no way to read the written records left behind by the Olmecs, as we do with the Maya and Aztecs, so any further comments would be mere speculation.
On that note — late-Maya civilization considered the jaguar to facilitate communication between the living and the dead and to protect the royal household (which was considered to embody the will of the current ‘Sun’ or ‘Age’). The Maya of this period apparently saw the jaguar as potential companions in the spirit world — as a result many prominant Maya rulers incorporated the word for jaguar (b’alam in many of the Mayan languages) into their names.
The Aztec civilization seems to have had a similar conception — associating the cats with the ruler and warrior classes. There was actually an elite warrior caste referred to as the Jaguar Knights. The jaguar was considered the by the Aztec to be a totem of the powerful deity Tezcatlipoca.
Among other Central or South American cultures, the Chavín culture of what’s now Peru was home to a ‘jaguar cult’ that was widespread sometime around 900 BC. The later Moche culture of the broader region seems to have considered jaguars to be symbol of power.
A final note — the Maya considered lunar eclipses to be the times when a great jaguar spirit tried to eat and consume the Moon.
Image Credit: Public Domain; Screen Capture