Animal Spotlight: Jaguar

The mystery,  beauty and ferocity of the Jaguar has always had a central role in the culture of many South and Central American societies; the name Jaguar probably comes from the languages of the Guarani and Tupi people, whose term yaguarete  is translated as, “true, fierce beast.” In fact, jaguars were considered gods in many ancient cultures in Mexico, Central America and South America, including the Mayans and Olmecs. The big cats’ images appear prominently in the art of architecture of these and other pre-Columbian cultures. Even today, among indigenous peoples, the Jaguar maintains a symbolic and spiritual importance as a protector of other species as well as a creature able to travel not only on the earthly plain, but into spiritual realms.

Here and Now

The fascination with these beautiful animals also extends to us here in Southern Arizona, where a Jaguar sighting in the Santa Rita Mountains brings great hope and excitement about the species.  Jaguar populations are decreasing, and they are currently classified as “near threatened” by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature).  However, in the U.S., the Fish and Wildlife Service has designated them as endangered.  

 At one time, jaguars roamed as far north as the Grand Canyon, but unfortunately, since 1996, carefully-placed trail cameras have only been able to capture images of seven male Jaguars on this side of the U.S.- Mexico border.    Researchers know of a breeding population in the state of Sonora, Mexico and in fact, at least one of the males that has been documented in Arizona has been also seen in Mexico.   How do the scientists know this?   Because like many big cats, individual Jaguars have distinctive patterns on their gorgeous coats!

Those are some big cats

The jaguar is the third largest cat in the world, right behind lions and tigers.  That makes them the largest cats in the Americas, even bigger than mountain lions.  An adult male jaguar can grow up to six feet long with another three feet of tail, and weigh up to 250 pounds.   Females are about 20% smaller. And in the wild, Jaguars can live in different areas – some in tropical forests, and others in savannas and grasslands, as long as there are water sources nearby.  The individuals in the forests tend to be a little smaller than their relatives who prowl open spaces.    Jaguars are powerful swimmers and have even been seen easily traversing the Panama Canal .     They are also talented at climbing and leaping, both important to their style of hunting.  

They’re not the same 

It’s easy to confuse Jaguars with Leopards, but never in the wild, because jaguars only live in the Americas, and leopards come to us from Africa and Asia.  Jaguars are larger than leopards, and though their coats appear similar, with dramatic black rosette patterns on a yellowish-brown background, the rosettes on a jaguar have unique dot patterns inside their rosettes (leopards don’t).  Jaguars are also heavier set than Leopards, with wider jaws and shorter legs than their African and Asian cousins.    Both species sometimes produce dramatic melanistic individuals, in which both the background color and the rosettes are black – that’s where the term “black panther” comes from.

Fierce Hunters

Jaguars are most active at dawn and dusk.   They are solitary in the wild (except for a brief time during breeding, or when the females are caring for the young), and the imperative of a typical day is hunting.     The big cats are carnivores, all the way, and prefer to eat large species, like tapir, deer, peccaries and even large turtles and caiman.     However, when it’s necessary, they’ll also prey on smaller animals and fish – about 85 different species altogether.  Whatever’s on the menu, the jaguar is an ambush predator.  An alpha, too, in its native habitat.  

 Their large eyes are not only strikingly beautiful, their amazing visual acuity allows the jaguar to spot prey at a great distance and in low light.  Jaguars have large, wide paws which are capable of moving swiftly but silently in service of a stealth attack.  And what an attack – at least it’s mercifully quick!     The jaguar’s powerful jaws and imposing canine teeth enable very efficient hunting techniques – one pounce, and the jaguar can easily crack the skull of its prey with just one bite.  The leathery skins of the larger river creatures are also no match for the jaguar’s ferocity, so most prey animals never know what hit them.

Cubs!  Not that many, and not that often

Jaguars briefly give up their solitary lifestyles in service of breeding season, which can really be any time of year.   Females breed every two years, and the gestation period for a female (who is perfectly cheerful about having been completely abandoned by her mate) is roughly 100 days.  A typical litter numbers 2-4, and the newborn cubs are completely dependent on the mother’s care: their eyes open at about 2 weeks old, and they generally nurse for five to six months.   The mother will continue to feed, protect, and teach them how to hunt until they’re about two years old.   A female cub will already be able to reproduce by the time she’s one, but males generally need to be at least 2-3 years old.   

Wait!  They each need their own territory??

So, imagine those cubs leaving home at age two to begin adult life – and imagine that each jaguar wants to be solitary – that’s a lot of space!   The decrease in numbers of jaguars is largely due to the increase in human usage of their ancestral habitats for agriculture and grazing – and jaguars have now been eradicated from 40% of their original ranges, from here all the way down to Argentina.     Unfortunately, though the jaguar is now a protected species, there is a demand in some Asian countries for the jaguar’s teeth and claws, and this is further driving illegal poaching in their remaining habitats.  Many experts expect that the IUCN will soon be downgrading the jaguar’s status to “vulnerable” – the step just below endangered in the wild.   And remember, the jaguar is already endangered in the U.S.   

Locally, those who hope that the jaguars coming across the border might someday establish a breeding population here are also concerned about human encroachment, water shortages, and the border fence blocking corridors for both the jaguar and its prey animals.  The survival of this species, like so many others, is dependent upon a complicated balance of human need, conservation initiatives, and politics.  The Reid Park Zoo is happy for you to come and see Tucson’s own “true, fierce beast” Bella, a 12-year-old female jaguar who can climb, swim, hide, pounce, and dash around her habitat in the South America Loop.    You can also learn about what you can do to protect jaguars in the wild, and you’ll want to once you’ve looked into those amazing eyes.

 And please make a future plan to visit all the other amazing endangered species they will have, and help, in the Reid Park Zoo expansion!

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