For wildlife aficionados, a sighting of any of the world's big cats in the wild is considered the ultimate experience. In most cases, the only way to do this is on a dedicated wildlife holiday to the continent where the big cats can be found. Led by professional naturalist guides with extensive knowledge of the animals' behaviour and habitat, a Jaguar tour will take place in South America, in the Brazilian Pantanal, for instance, while a Tiger wildlife tour can encompass destinations in India or Sri Lanka. |
A Leopard or a Jaguar?
While the main species of big cats are clearly distinguishable from one another (it's not easy to confuse a Tiger and a Lion, for instance), people do often get confused between the Jaguar and the Leopard. While they both belong to the same family (felidae) and genus (Panthera), and at first glance may be fairly similar, they have marked differences in both behaviour and appearance.
As the two big cats also inhabit entirely different continents, it's unlikely anyone would think they've seen a Leopard while on a Jaguar tour of South America. However, identifying the differences between them can reveal some interesting facts about the animals' behaviour and choice of habitat.
Body Size and Structure
The most marked difference between the two cats is in their size and body structure. The Leopard (Panthera onca) is smaller and slighter in build, with a large skull, shorter legs and a long, supple body and tail. The Jaguar (Panthera padrus) has a sturdy, compact, more muscular body, a broader head, and a shorter tail.
Both species' fur is marked with the distinctive polygonal 'rosettes', but while the Leopard's are smaller, rounder and more densely packed, the Jaguar's have a central spot within each rosette. Both species can also be black in colour (known as melanistic) and, although harder to discern, the fur is still marked with rosettes.
Despite being powerful swimmers, Leopards tend to avoid water where possible. They are, however, excellent climbers and are quite at home resting in the branches of trees. Their powerful jaws enable them to drag a kill three times their own body weight up a tree in order to keep it safe from other predators.
Although sometimes ascending to the branches of trees to prepare for an ambush, as the apex predator of South America, Jaguars have no need to protect their prey from anything else. They love the water, and often prey on fish, anacondas, caimans and even turtles.
Both big cats are largely solitary predators, but have different methods when it comes to the kill. The stealthy, opportunistic Leopard hunts mainly at night and will silently stalk its prey before pouncing and delivering a fatal bite to the throat. The Jaguar has the most powerful bite of all felids – twice that of a Lion. Its name actually comes from the Native American 'yaguara', translating to 'he who kills with one leap'. It has a deadly accurate and proficient kill method, which is to bite directly through the skull of its prey and pierce its brain.
While the Jaguar's original habitat spilled into parts of south-western USA, it has now shrunk to worryingly small proportions and consists predominantly of the remote Amazon Basin regions of Central and South America. (A dedicated Jaguar tour will most likely take place in the Brazilian Pantanal region.) The Leopard's habitat is far more diverse, however, and its numbers are widespread throughout most of Africa and Asia, including the Middle East and India, allowing nature lovers a diverse range of habitats to visit in hopes of a sighting.
While the above are the more obvious ones, there are many other behavioural and physical differences between these two species of magnificent big cats that can be revealed by observation or more in-depth research.
Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer. If you’re looking for a Jaguar tour, Naturetrek specialises in expert-led natural history and wildlife tours worldwide. Naturetrek brings over 25 years of experience to Jaguar watching tours in some of the most spectacular regions on Earth.
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