The jaguar is the largest cat in the Americas. The largest adult males occasionally weigh more than 300 pounds (148 kilograms). Jaguars living in heavily forested areas are considerably smaller than those from populations in more open areas such as the Pantanal of Brazil and the Llanos of Venezuela. The jaguar is the only living representative of the genus Panthera found in the New World. They have spots pattern; its markings have larger, broken-edged rosettes with small black spots inside them, making them distinct from leopard marking. Jaguars have a large head, stocky build, and relatively short limbs compared to others in their genus. Melanism (black coats) occurs in some populations.
Historically, jaguars ranged from the southern United States (Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico) through Mexico and Central America to Venezuela, the Guianas, Brazil, and northern Argentina. Current distribution is in a broad belt from central Mexico through Central America to South America as far south as the northern portion of Argentina. Within that range, only populations in Amazonia, Venezuela, and the Guianas are sustaining or increasing. See range map
Jaguars swim well and tend to live near water. They prefer habitats such as rainforest and seasonally flooded swamp areas. Some also live in thorn scrub woodland and dry deciduous forest. Jaguars have been found at elevations as high as 12,467 feet (3,800 meters) in Costa Rica, but typically avoid montane forest and have not been found in the high plateau of central Mexico or above 8,858 feet (2,700 meters) in the Andes.
More than 85 species have been recorded in the jaguar's diet. They prefer large prey such as peccary, deer, tapir, and capybara, but jaguars will eat almost anything that can be caught. In areas with lots of cattle ranching, domestic livestock may become the most frequently targeted prey species. Jaguars are the only big cat that regularly kills prey (especially capybaras) by piercing the skull with their canines. It is possible that the massive head and stout canines are an adaptation for "cracking open" well-armored reptilian prey such as land tortoises and river turtles.
Their survival of the great Pleistocene extinction, which saw the disappearance of many large ungulates and their predators, may be due in part to the jaguar's ability to take advantage of a super-abundant prey base of aquatic reptiles (turtles, caimans, and snakes).
Jaguars are solitary, territorial carnivores. The territories of males are larger than those of females and may overlap several females’ territory. After a gestation of about 101 days, females give birth to one to four cubs (though usually two) that become independent in 1.5 to two years. Males mature sexually in three to four years, females in two to three years. In captivity, jaguars are probably the longest lived of any species of cat, with a few individuals living longer than 30 years.
Although they were once heavily hunted for their skins, this threat has declined drastically since the mid-1970s when anti-fur campaigns reduced the popularity of coats made from spotted cats and CITES controls progressively shut down international markets. Today high deforestation rates, which fragment jaguar populations and make them more vulnerable to continuing persecution by humans, threaten most populations. Regardless of legal protection, people often shoot jaguars on sight, especially in areas with cattle ranches. Because jaguars eat lots of cattle where cattle are abundant, some farmers hire hunters to pursue local jaguars. Such conflict is the most urgent conservation issue facing jaguars. People have tried simply relocating problem animals in Brazil and Venezuela, but the results so far are inconclusive. Attempts to relocate problem individuals in Belize found that jaguars often return to stock killing.
The IUCN listed the jaguar as near threatened on its 2008 Red List. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists the jaguar as endangered. CITES lists them on Appendix I.
The AZA Jaguar Species Survival Plan (SSP) encourages and supports conservation and education projects that promote the survival of the jaguar in nature. Until recently, jaguars in North American zoo collections were largely of unknown origin but, recently, wild-born individuals from Peru and Venezuela have been acquired. A separate genetic line from Mexico has also been imported. Ultimately, the SSP hopes to possess only jaguars that can be traced to some part of the wild. The SSP doesn’t focus on a single subspecies of jaguar because of the relative abundance of some populations, especially in Amazonia, and because it appears likely that additional founders from range countries will be periodically available for years to come. The SSP's target population for the North American zoo population is 120 individuals.
Jaguars are difficult to study in the field, but research in the Pantanal of southern Brazil, the llanos of central Venezuela, and in the Cockscomb Mountains of Belize have shed light on many aspects of their behavioral biology. Although true protection is still lacking in most parts of their range, protection in the Cockscomb Basin is in that a large tract of land is set aside specifically for jaguars.