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Ridgefield Park, NJ

Panthera onca, otherwise known as the South-American jaguar, is the only member of its genus to natively roam the Americas. These big cats are a near-threatened type of predatory, carnivorous mammal who manage to stay elusive but revered in surrounding indigenous cultures. The jaguar name actually comes from an indigenous word, ‘yaguar,” which means “he who kills with one leap”. Their versatility in hunting style and behavior is unmatched by any other big cat, and despite these cats being the apex predators, they typically get overshadowed by the regal lion or the elusive tiger. They’re even commonly mixed up with the African leopard, so what sets jaguars apart from their rather famous cousins? What makes these perfect predators unique?

jaguar tree mammal big cat
Jaguar laying on a tree

Jaguars had initially inhabited from the south-western U.S.A to southern Argentina, however due to habitat loss, around 50% of their population sticks to the Brazilian amazon, with the rest inhabiting the surrounding pantanal wetlands. Though one jaguar in 2015–”El Jefe”–was spotted in Arizona, these instances are becoming increasingly rare and due to habitat loss, they’re slowly losing their once vast home range. Luckily, these cats show such massive success as the apex predators of their environment that they have managed to keep their populations at a consistent number when compared to their more in-danger cousins. The poaching of jaguars is still alarming–especially for the black jaguar variation–but they manage to stay elusive. This does not, however, mean that they are safe from rapidly losing their numbers if deforestation of the Amazon and illegal poaching continues.

As mentioned previously, jaguars are strictly carnivorous. Their diet consistently includes capybara, which are the largest rodent in the world, caimans, a close cousin of the alligator, and many ungulates that can be found in their range. Much of their prey is semi-aquatic, which led to jaguars becoming extremely proficient swimmers and feeling quite comfortable in the many rivers and lakes of the Amazon rainforest.

jaguar swim predator mammal hunting
Jaguar taking a dive

Their proficiency in the water has even allowed jaguars to begin hunting fish along with the other creatures on their menu. One of the more interesting quirks of a jaguar, that makes their hunting tactic so dangerous, is that they’re one of the few cats that will aim for the skull. Typically, a predator in general will go for the neck or stomach of their prey to incapacitate and slow their prey down. However, jaguars use their large teeth and strong bite force–the strongest bite force in comparison to their body weight out of all big cats–to puncture the skull of their prey and immediately kill them. This strategy is what allows them to attack such dangerous prey, like caimans.

jaguar caiman hunting lethal predator
Jaguar hunting a caiman

To make sure jaguars are able to hunt all this prey without competition, they hold quite large territories. Males typically have a range of 19-53 square miles that they will fiercely protect from other males. They usually do allow a few females–who require about 10-37 square miles of territory– to inhabit their home range, however. To ensure that the females that occupy a male’s territory only have his cubs, he will frequently patrol his land in order to make sure no other bachelors try to invade his territory. Jaguars do mate year-round, so this territory patrol takes up alot of their time. After about 100 days from the breeding, the female will have a litter of 1-4 cubs in some kind of protective area- whether it be a cave, thicket, or den. These cubs, much like human babies, are completely helpless. They are born blind and deaf, only able to walk after about 20 days. After about six weeks, the cubs will begin following their mother outside the den and begin transitioning to eating solids that she provides to them.

jaguar cubs mammal young newborn big cat
Jaguar cubs

Once her cubs reach their six weeks, the mother is faced with an impossible task: teach these clumsy, weak cubs to take care of themselves. While natural instincts will cover many requirements for their adult life–territory marking, mating, and fighting–hunting is something that these cubs will have to observe and practice. They will constantly play-fight with each other and stalk one another as a natural instinct in order to practice, however it’s up to their mother to make sure they will actually be able to take care of themselves. Fortunately, most mothers are able to successfully set their cubs up for a future full of food. This does not, however, assure that they themselves don’t become prey. Grown male jaguars will kill any cubs that aren’t theirs, and many birds of prey will snag an unwatched cub. Jaguar mothers often wear themselves out with constant vigilance and wait quite a while before preparing herself for another litter. After cubs grow to an age of two-years-old, they will leave their mother and set out on their own. A few months after leaving their mother, female cubs will become sexually mature while males have to wait another year or two. After reaching this sexual maturity, they are ready to have their own cubs and may be able to do so until they reach 15-years-old.

Jaguars are extremely versatile animals who are able to adapt themselves for nearly any situation. Their unique hunting strategy and affinity for water and climbing allows for them to become the true apex predators of any habitat they inhabit. Being the third-largest big cat, they’re nothing to scoff at either in size. Their beautiful coats however make them a prime target for poaching. If we are to keep jaguars from becoming endangered–or worse, extinct like the North-American jaguar–we need to protect these animals and their habitats. The constant deforestation of their environment closes these animals into one concentrated area, making it easier for poachers to locate them. If we want to make sure these strong, beautiful creatures continue as the apex predator, we need to take care of the environment around them.

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