Scientific classification: The jaguar belongs to the family Felidae. It is classified as Panthera onca
The Jaguar is a muscular, stocky member of the cat family found primarily in Central and South America. It is the third largest of the world’s cats and the largest and most powerful cat in the Americas. The name jaguar is derived from yaguara, a word from an indigenous South American language that means “wild beast that overcomes its prey with a single bound.”
The jaguar’s image has dominated the culture and mythology of Central and South America, where the jaguar is a symbol of power, closely associated with thunder, lightning, and rain. Jaguar sculptures have been discovered in Peru among the artifacts of the earliest known civilization in South America. In Mexico 2,000 years ago the Olmec people paid homage to the jaguar with 20-ton jaguar statues and giant pavement mosaics. Today, some indigenous peoples still engage in ceremonies that celebrate the jaguar before they partake in important hunting expeditions.
Among the 36 cat species, jaguars are most closely related to lions, leopards, and tigers. These four big cats evolved from a common ancestor about 2 million to 3 million years ago. Recent genetic studies suggest that jaguars and leopards may be the most closely related members of the big cats. Physically, jaguars and leopards look quite similar, but compared side-by-side the jaguar is heavier and more powerful looking, with a much larger head than the leopard.
Jaguars usually live in dense tropical forest, preferring wetter areas near streams and rivers, or in swampy grasslands. Jaguars enjoy water they are great swimmers, capable of crossing even the widest rivers. They often spend the heat of the day half-submerged in a stream or pool. However, these cats can also survive in such drier habitats as dry forests and scrub, and they sometimes travel along wooded riverbeds into semidesert areas. Jaguars are good climbers and often rest in trees.
Today the jaguar ranges from Mexico through much of South America, including Colombia, Venezuela, Suriname, Brazil, Peru, Paraguay, and northern Argentina. Until quite recently, jaguars also survived further north in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Texas. Two of the last remaining jaguars in North America were shot in Texas in 1946 and in Arizona in 1949. However, the species may be making a comeback into its North American range. In 1996 a mountain lion hunter photographed a young male jaguar in southeastern Arizona and, in 2001 and again in 2003, a remote surveillance camera photographed a jaguar on the Arizona-Mexico border.
The 1975 Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) treaty prohibited international trade in most wild cats and was dramatically effective in curtailing trade of jaguar skins.
However, the jaguar still faces other human threats. In areas where jaguars roam, much forest has been converted to farms and cattle ranches. Poaching, habitat loss, and competition with subsistence hunters for prey threaten the jaguar throughout its range. As more and more forest is converted to cattle ranches, jaguars prey on cattle with more frequency. As a result, ranchers actively hunt jaguars to protect their livestock. Conservation groups are working to find ways to minimize jaguar predation on livestock and build local support for conservation.