In appearance the Jaguar is often confused with the Leopard both cats, depending to a degree on sub-species have a similar brownish/yellow base fur colour which is distinctively marked with dark rosette markings. However, the jaguar can be distinguished by the presence of small dots or irregular shapes within the larger rosette markings, a more stocky and muscular body and a shorter tail. Melanistic or black jaguars (see below) are common in certain parts of its range and are often confusingly labelled Black Panthers a name which is also applied to black Leopards. In this melanistic form the cats are more difficult to separate, however the jaguars large head and stocky forelimbs are often a good way to differentiate between the two cats.
In the wild, identification would not be an issue as the cats inhabit different continents – the jaguar is the only member of the panthera family to be found in the Americas and its is by far the biggest cat on the continent. The Jaguars range, which once spanned from the southern states of the USA down to the tip of South America, now centres on the north and central parts of the South American continent. The jaguar is predominantly a forest dweller with the highest population densities centring on the lowland rain forests of the Amazon Basin – dry woodland and grassland also serve as suitable terrain, although the cat is rarely found in areas above 8000 feet.
The overall body size and coloration of the cat often relates to its location – jaguars found in dense forested areas of the Amazon Basin are often only half the size of those found in more open terrain and it has been suggested that this can be related to the more frequent occurrence of larger prey species found in open terrain . Coloration of dense forest dwelling jaguars is often darker than those found in grassland and scrub forest – here, as with the darker coloration of rainforest leopards, the darker coats give better camouflage in the low light condition on the forest floor and offers the dark coated cat greater success in hunting and a greater chance of survival.
Unlike many other big cats, apart from man, the jaguar has no rivals – no other predator can compete with this powerful cat. The jaguars main periods of hunting activity are greatly dependant upon location – in some areas which are close to human habitation it appears that the cat is most active at night, whilst in other locations the jaguar is crepuscular and in certain cases diurnal in its hunting activity. The prey base of the jaguar is extensive, taking full advantage of the diversity and dense concentration of animal species found in the rainforest areas. In size its prey ranges from large domestic livestock such as cattle and horses (for which it has a poor reputation with local farmers), Marsh deer, Brocket deer, down through various species of Peccary, larger rodents such as Capybara, Paca and Agouti, to reptiles, monkeys and fish.
In comparison with the other cats of its size the jaguar has particularly power jaws and often kills its prey by piercing the skull with one swift bite. In the Cockscomb Basin Reserve in Belize the predominant prey species has been found to be Armadillo, who’s bony protective plates offer little defence against the power of the jaguars bite. Where possible, the cat will inhabit areas close to water – it is an expert in catching fish and will often tackle turtles and large caiman, dragging them from he water to hide the carcass in the dense undergrowth. Equally at home as a climber, although not as adept as the leopard, the jaguar will hunt monkeys in the lower branches of the large rain forest trees. In much of its range where man lives close by, the jaguar now has to compete with the human hunter and poacher who takes many of the same species as the big cat.
During the peak of its decline in the sixties and seventies, around 18,000 jaguars were killed every year for there much sought after coat. Due to environmental pressure the fashion for animal furs has declined, but the jaguar is still hunted. Today the major threat comes from deforestation which is drastically affecting the jaguars prey base as well as fragmenting the cats population into more isolated pockets. It is estimated that there are now only around 15,000 jaguars left in the wild and conservation is centring on the establishment of protected ‘National Park’ areas which may serve to reduce the decline of the jaguars natural habitat. In Belize, the government, aided by the WWF, have set aside 150 square miles of rain forest in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Preserve, which currently provides a protected environment for around 200 jaguars, the largest concentration of the wild cats species in the world. The WWF are also providing aid to protect some of the remaining rain forests areas of South America, which provide a refuge for the majority of the remaining jaguar population.