Prowling the night time rainforest, the lord of the underworld or Jaguar God of The Night was sacred according to the Mayan culture. And it is these people who gave the big cat its name — yaguar — “he who kills with one leap.” For the ancient Aztecs, the jaguar was a symbol of wealth, royalty and magical power. And young men in this culture who climbed the highest ranks of the warriors were called “Jaguar knights” or “Jaguar warriors.” Shamans and sorcerers viewed these magnificent cats as spirit animals and they are considered a clan animal by many Central- and South American cultures.
Kukulcan’s Jaguar Throne near the Mayan site of Chichen Itza. Image license CC SA 3.0 by Alonso de Mendoza via Wikimedia Commons The Aztec day sign Ocelotl. Image license by Serg!o Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
The Jaguar Is King Of The Rainforest
The huge cat is immensely powerful, and it’s no wonder that the people from indigenous cultures revered them. As the largest cat in the Americas, the jaguar (Panthera onca) is the third largest of the world’s big cats. Males can reach a length of seven feet and weigh up to 200 pounds, Big Cat Rescue reports. While it may not be as large as a lion or tiger, amazingly this cat has a powerful bite that is stronger than any of its big cat relatives — at 2000 psi (pounds per square inch.) Its bite is even more powerful than that of a grizzly bear, gorilla, or even a hippopotamus.
With so much power jaguars are masters at killing large prey
Which they do by delivering a bite to the back of the skull. In Costa Rica, we have the collared peccary (which I can tell you from experience smell like rancid bacon mixed with peanut butter), the white-lipped peccary, and Baird’s tapir, and all of these mammals are favorites on the jaguar’s menu. The caiman (a crocodilian in the family Alligatoridae) is also on the menu as are fish.
And Jaguars, like tigers, also love water. In the video below, this wily jaguar uses that fact to its advantage to ambush a caiman.
With its beautiful fur, the jaguar is often mistaken for a leopard, which is understandable since both cats have beautiful black spots that form rosettes on tawny fur. But the rosettes on jaguars tend to be larger. Their head is larger too, and slightly boxy in appearance — to make room for those powerful jaws.
Like the leopard, the jaguar also comes in a melanistic (all black) color form. However, the spots can still be seen in the cat’s black fur. Instances of albino jaguars have been reported as well.
The spots are still visible in this melanistic jaguar. Image license Public Domain by Singer Ron%2C U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia Commons
For those who might find it confusing to distinguish between the two big cats, I have included two photos below that show the differences in the fur of a jaguar (top) and a leopard (bottom.)
The rosettes on a jaguar’s fur are large. Image license CC SA 4.0 by Cedricguppy via Wikimedia Commons The rosettes in this leopard’s fur are smaller than those found in jaguars. Image license CC SA 3.0 by Wegmann via Wikimedia Commons
Jaguars are found in a variety of habitats, from dry forests to swamps and rainforests. The cats can even be found in scrub and desert and some, like El Jefe (The boss) and Sombra, have made their way back into Arizona. In the past jaguars ranged into California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Florida, but tragically these beautiful cats were hunted into extinction in the late 1940s.
The range of the jaguar in the past and the present
This map shows the current and former range of the jaguar. Image license CC 3.0 by maplab via Wikimedia Commons
Jaguars are found in Mexico (but tragically their populations are declining.) In addition Central America and South America, with their strongest populations living in Brazil’s Mato Grosso region; the Pantanal, which borders Brazil, and in Bolivia and Paraguay. They also live in the Yucatan Peninsula, northern Belize, Guatemala, and in Chiapas state, Mexico.
The jaguar is largely solitary
They really prefer just hanging around by themselves and while they are largely terrestrial, they are also really good climbers. Like all other big cats, it marks its territory by spraying urine and clawing trees and communicates by roaring, grunting, and meowing (which might sound a little odd coming from a 200 lb. cat.)
Like all big cats jaguars have really cute cubs
Beautiful little jaguar cub. Image license CC 2.0 by Rob Bixby via Flickr
Jaguars may breed at any time during the year, and cubs are born after a gestation period of about 100 days. Litters usually consist of two to four cubs and mom will keep caring for and feeding her little ones until they are about a year old. They will stay with her for another year. Females become sexually mature at two to three years old, while males are sexually mature between the ages of three and four.
Deforestation rates are tragically high in Latin America and jaguar populations are becoming increasingly fragmented. The cats prey on cattle, farmers frequently shoot these poor cats on sight, even though they are protected in much of their range. One bit of good news is that hunting jaguars for their beautiful pelts has decreased drastically thanks to anti-fur campaigns and controls implemented by the Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Despite this, the jaguar is considered “near endangered” by the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species.
How you can help:
What a beautiful cat. Image license by CC SA 3.0 by Cburnett via Wikimedia Commons
One of the best ways to protect these wonderful cats is to keep their forest home safe. Organizations like Defenders of Wildlife, The Wildlife Conservation Society, and The World Wildlife Fund all work to save jaguars, and you can help by adopting one, or by donating. You can also volunteer at jaguar rescue centers in Costa Rica, Guatemala, or the U.S. to help these magnificent cats.
Let’s help the lord of the underworld to continue being the king of the rainforest.
Featured image license CC Attribution 2.0 by Pascal Blachier via Wikimedia Commons
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