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The jaguar, best known for its yellow-brown coat covered with black spots called rosettes, is the largest cat in the Americas, and the Western Hemisphere's only member of the genus Panthera. The animal’s modern name derives from "yaguara" and other terms used by Brazilian natives. These Tupi and Guarani words were overheard and corrupted by Portuguese conquerers. Scientists estimate that only about 15,000 of these elusive cats still live in the wild.
Jaguars prefer dense tropical rainforests with plenty of water and thick cover. Unlike most cats, jaguars do not avoid water, and they are skillful swimmers. These practiced climbers ascend high into trees to rest or to ambush prey below. They are solitary, territorial predators. They defend home ranges of about 35 square miles, marking borders with their waste or by clawing trees. Although jaguars have historically been characterized as nocturnal, these great cats are most active in the periods of dusk and just after dawn.
Jaguars are fairly nondiscriminatory carnivores who consume at least 85 species. As the average adult grows to 6 feet in length and weighs around 200 pounds, these cats are built for power, not speed. Instead of chasing their prey, they silently stalk it, lying in wait for the opportunity to quickly ambush. Relative to size, the jaguar has the most powerful jaw of any big cat, and it uses it to kill in an unusual way. Whereas most big cats clamp down on their prey's neck to suffocate it, the jaguar bites through the skull, piercing the brain. Death is instantaneous.
South American Culture
The jaguar figures prominently in Meso-American mythology and native culture. Many natives of the Suriname area considered the jaguar a god. The Yanomami Indians called the jaguar the “eater of souls,” believing the animal consumed the spirits of the dead. The Aztecs considered the cat a symbol for royalty and war, and their elite fighters were known as jaguar warriors. To the Mayas, the jaguar was associated with night and the underworld. The Mayan god of the underworld was often depicted as a jaguar. The animal had great spiritual power and significance, and it was often a spirit animal for shamans.
Despite being an apex predator, the jaguar is at risk and is categorized as a near-threatened species. Although international treaties prohibit killing these animals for the fur trade or capturing them as pets, humans remain their top threat. In Brazil, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico and Peru, hunting is still allowed to dispose of “problem animals.” Bolivia permits trophy hunting, and neither Ecuador or Guyana has any policies in effect to protect jaguars. As of 2013, conservation efforts focused on establishing protected national parks to reduce habitat destruction. The jaguar's historic range included the U.S. Southwest.
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