Description and biology

The jaguar is the largest living member of the cat family in North and South America and the third largest in the world. Its coat ranges from yellow–brown to auburn and is covered with black spots and rosettes, or rings, encircling spots.

An average adult jaguar has a head and body length of 4 to 6 feet (1.2 to 1.8 meters) and a tail length of 18 to 30 inches (46 to 76 centimeters). It stands about 2.5 feet (0.7 meter) high at its shoulder and weighs between 100 and 250 pounds (45 and 115 kilograms). Of the big cats, only the jaguar and the snow leopard do not seem to roar.

Jaguars are good swimmers, runners, and tree climbers. Their diet includes fish, frogs, turtles, small alligators, iguanas, peccaries (mammals related to the pig), monkeys, birds, deer, dogs, and cattle. Jaguars are solitary mammals and are quick to defend their chosen hunting territory.

For male jaguars, this territory ranges between 8 and 80 square miles (20 and 207 square kilometers); for females, it ranges between 4 and 27 square miles (10 and 70 square kilometers).

Male and female jaguars come together only to mate. In tropical areas, mating takes place at any time during the year. In areas with cooler climates, jaguars mate in the spring.

After a gestation (pregnancy) period of 90 to 110 days, a female jaguar gives birth to a litter of one to four cubs. She raises the cubs on her own, and they may stay with her for up to two years.

Habitat and current distribution

Jaguars are found in parts of Mexico, Central America, South America as far south as northern Argentina, and the southwestern United States. Because the animals are secretive and rare, biologists (people who study living organisms) have not been able to determine the exact number remaining in the wild, but in 1998 it was estimated that the jaguar population in the world was less than 50,000 breeding adults. The largest remaining population of jaguars is believed to live in the Amazonian rain forest.

Jaguars live in a variety of habitats, including tropical and subtropical forests, open woodlands, mangroves, swamps, scrub thickets, and savannas.

History and conservation measures

The jaguar once inhabited areas as far north as the southern United States. It is now extinct over much of its former range. The primary reason for the animal’s decline was ruthless hunting, both for sport and for the jaguar’s prized coat. In the early to mid–1960s, spotted cat skins were in great demand. International treaties have all but eliminated the commercial trade of cat pelts.

Jaguars now face the threat of habitat destruction. The clearing of forests to build ranches and farms has rapidly eliminated the animals’ original habitat. Forced to live next to farmland, jaguars are often killed by farmers because they prey on domestic animals.

Small populations of jaguars are protected in large national parks in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, and Venezuela. Smaller reserves and private ranches in these areas provide protection to isolated pairs or families. The jaguar has been bred successfully in zoos.