The largest cat in the Americas, the jaguar (Panthera onca) is perfectly adapted to the dense rainforests of South and Central America, where it stands at the top of the food chain. An apex predator and resourceful opportunist, the jaguar has an exceptionally varied diet including capybaras, peccaries, giant anteaters, armadillos, coatis, deer and even tapirs (the largest native mammal in South America). That’s just on land – the jaguar is also a proficient swimmer and often lives near water. This opens up an even greater array of prey; their strong jaws and teeth can bite through caiman skulls and turtle shells. As a keystone species, the jaguar plays a vital role in stabilising ecosystems and regulating the populations of its prey. Subsequently, ongoing threats to the jaguar have far-reaching and severe consequences.
Closely resembling the leopard, the jaguar is often larger and has a slightly different spot pattern. The jaguar’s golden coat is adorned with black rosettes which may have spots within them – unlike the leopard whose rosettes do not have inner spots. This pattern is an excellent form of camouflage in the dappled light of its forest habitat. Around 6% of jaguars are melanistic – a black colour morph that gives them the name ‘black panther’. Like the leopard, the jaguar is a great climber and may climb trees to ambush their prey from above.
Jaguars are solitary cats. Adults only usually come together to mate or when defending their territory. When hunting, jaguars will patiently stalk their prey before ambushing and making a swift kill. Normally, this involves a throat-bite and suffocation but, uniquely among cats, it may use its immensely powerful jaws and sharp teeth to pierce the skull and brain of its soon-to-be meal. The jaguar’s silent and eerie hunting method has earned it respect from past and present indigenous cultures. The jaguar is a symbol of power and strength. In fact, the name jaguar was derived from the Native American word yaguar, which means ‘he who kills with one leap’.
However, the admiration for this magnificent beast seems to be fading. With their forest home being destroyed at an alarming rate and increasing conflict with farmers, their population is in decline. I’m sure you have heard about the ongoing fires in Brazil which are rapidly burning vast areas of the Amazon rainforest – the world’s largest rainforest. The amazon not only produces 20% of the earth’s oxygen, it also provides a home for one in ten known species on earth. One in five of all bird species are found in the Amazon and at least 40,000 plant species; it is the most biodiverse habitat on our planet. As the demand for agriculture grows in South America, more and more of the Amazon is being consumed by humans. With the jaguar being such an ecologically important species, its loss would have irreversible effects not just on Central and South American ecosystems, but on the entire earth.
Hennessy, K., Wiggins, V. (2014) Animal Encyclopedia: The Definitive Visual Guide. 2nd edn. London. Dorling Kindersley.