Panthera onca, more commonly known as the Jaguar, is the third largest of the big cat family (after the Tiger and Lion) and is a solitary, secretive, and extremely powerful apex predator. While the etymology of both the Latin and more commonly used name is not definitive, there are some established theories. |
The Latin Panthera is derived from the Greek word for leopard. It is thought that this was derived from 'pan' (meaning 'all') and ther (meaning 'predator'), however linguists posit this may be folk etymology. Another theory is that it comes from the ancient Sanskrit word for tiger – pundarikam. In fact, in many South and Central American countries, the animal is known as 'il tigre'; in the 16th century the Spaniards had never before encountered such an animal and they had no word for this ferocious creature that was smaller than a Lion but larger than a Leopard. So they took their cue from their only source of information, which would have been ancient Roman writings.
It's also possible that panthera has an East Asian origin, with the word meaning 'the yellowish animal'.
The 'onca' component was once said to be in reference to the animal's hooked or barbed claws. However it's now accepted that it is an adaptation of the Portuguese name for the animal, 'onça'.
The etymology of the more familiar name is also slightly unclear – although theories are very closely linked. There are two languages it is believed it may have come from – the South American Tupi, or the related Guaraní from Paraguay. In Tupi language, the original word is yaguara, which was a word used for any carnivorous animal or beast of prey, but the word was also often translated as 'dog'.
While it's been disputed, previous etymological theories suggested that yaguara means 'a beast that kills prey with one bound', and some still claim this as the truth. In the Guaraní languages, which are closely related to the Tupi, yaguareté (with the suffix eté meaning 'true' or 'real') is said to mean 'the real fierce beast'.
Where to Go on Jaguar Tours
Seeing this notoriously private big cat in the wild is one of the most sought after wildlife experiences for nature lovers. While their population has declined, due to habitat loss or fragmentation and through human intervention from ranchers protecting domestic livestock, with a number of conservation initiatives in place, Panthera Onca's future is looking more secure.
Travelling to the Brazilian Pantanal (the world's largest tropical wetland) on a well-organised Jaguar tour offers the very best opportunities for sightings. For those fortunate enough to enjoy the privilege to observe the magnificent creature swimming, hunting, or prowling the jungle trails in its natural habitat, the experience is both humbling and memorable.
Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in Jaguar watching. Being passionate about her subject, Marissa chooses the expert-led Jaguar tours organised by Naturetrek, which have brought her unforgettable sightings of a wide range of wildlife in some of the most spectacular regions on Earth.
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