The magnificent Panthera onca, to give the spotted big cat its official name, is one of the most enigmatic and mysterious of all jungle creatures. For wildlife lovers, organised Jaguar tours to the Brazilian Pantanal region offer the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience a sighting in the animal's natural habitat. |
Professionally organised Jaguar tours are accompanied by an expert naturalist guide, but understanding as much as possible about the big cat's physical characteristics can enrich the experience of a sighting even more.
Colouration of the Coat
Panthera onca's coat is most commonly of a tawny yellow or tan appearance, however it can range from the extremely rare white colouration, through to reddish brown and black. The underside, or 'ventral', areas of the coat are white.
At first glance this big cat may appear similar to the Leopard, however, apart from being larger and stockier (with shorter legs and tail), their coats are actually quite different, with a solid black dot (or several) within each 'rosette'. The exception is around the head area, where they are solid, and around the tail, where they often merge together to form a banding effect. The spots are also larger, darker and sparser on the dorsal coat than the Leopard's.
Rosettes are like a fingerprint, individual to each animal, and act as the perfect camouflage within the dappled shadows of the jungle. Research has shown that animals whose range territory is predominantly in dense rainforested areas have a darker colouration than those found in more open terrain.
In approximately 6% of the population, colour morphism occurs, resulting in the black (or near black) melanistic form of the big cat, often referred to as 'black panthers' (a term that's used to refer to any black big cat). From a distance these animals can look entirely black, but in fact the rosettes are still present and visible up close or under direct sunlight. As the colour morphism occurs from a mutated gene that produces a dark pigment, melanistic Jaguars do not constitute a separate species. Interestingly, while one might consider a near-black coat to be an advantage when hunting at night, in fact it is easier for other species to see a solid colour than a patterned one.
Although extremely rare, albinism or leucism (partial loss of pigmentation) can also occur within the species – resulting in an animal with a white coat – and is another example of gene mutation. The animal's increased aggressiveness is also attributed to this recessive gene deformity.
Protecting Panthera onca
Although now protected, the exquisite beauty of Panthera onca's fur has been to its detriment in the past, and through the ages it has been hunted as a prized trophy into now 'near threatened' numbers. Deforestation of its habitat throughout Central and South America has further contributed to a decline in numbers.
Awareness of the need to protect and preserve this magnificent animal is spreading, however, and there are a number of high-profile conservation initiatives in place. In addition to creating accessibility for an extremely sought after wildlife experience, organised Jaguar tours provide an ethical and sustainable eco-tourism attraction that puts the big cat's profile front and centre.
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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