What is the difference between a jaguar and a leopard?
At first glance one could easily make the mistake of confusing the two! I get asked this question all the time and so decided to put together the ultimate comparison. I am in a very privileged position of having spent a great deal of time with both in the wild. I will take this comparison beyond the looks, diving more deeply into the design, make up and behaviour of these magnificent predators. I will use some of my images to help illustrate the points.
The jaguar is found in the Americas. Historically they occurred as far north as California, however the United States population is largely extinct. It extends south through Central America and into Argentina – New World Cat
Leopard populations are found from China and India to the Middle East and down into Africa – Old World Cat.
Female Leopard: 20 – 60 kg
Female Jaguar: 85 – 90 kg
Male Leopard: 40 – 80kg
Male Jaguar: 110 -120 kg
The jaguar is the 3rd largest cat in the world.
Jaguars tend to have larger rosettes with spots in the middle; the leopard has plain rosettes with no central spot in the middle.
Jaguars, in the Pantanal at least, go independent at a very young age. From data we, at Projeto Onçafari, have started to collect, we believe that female jaguars leave mom at around 14-15 months. A female leopard may reach anything between 18-24 months before leaving. A male jaguar starts to show signs of heading off around 18 – 20 months and its leopard counterpart may think about it at closer to 24 months. Thus the jaguar grows up very quickly.
With jaguars sexual maturity occurs in females around 2 to 3 years; males mature between 3 and 4 years. Leopards develop slightly later then this. Most female leopards fall pregnant for the first time at around 3,5 years.
Leopards: 12- 15 in the wild, although there are a number of cases of females reaching over 17.
Jaguars: uncertain in the wild, but thought to be around 13- 15
The jaguar steals the show here. Pound for pound this cat is phenomenally strong. With the ability to deliver up to 2000 pounds/square inch of force, this makes jaguars the most powerful of the great cats – even more so than lions and tigers.
List of top 10 most powerful bites in the animal kingdom (based on pounds per square inch)
8. spotted hyena
7. grizzly bear
4. jaguar (most powerful mammal)
3. american alligator
2. saltwater crocodile
1. nile crocodile
The shape and size of the head is very different between the two cats. Due to the different styles of killing (see below) the jaguar has a much broader forehead and wider jaw.
Jaguars have a large barrel like abdomen. It almost always looks as if they are pregnant or well fed. Leopards, on the other hand, often have a very slight build. Jaguars have a shorter, stockier, build then the leopard.
Prior to my 6 months in Brazil I was of the belief that jaguars do not really climb trees. They are cats, so I knew of course that they were capable of climbing, but literature appeared to suggest that they only climbed trees when under pressure and being confronted by people or dogs. They climb to escape confrontation. However, I can firmly say now that this is a myth! At Projeto Onçafari we have been able to observe jaguars in a number of trees. We have camera traps positioned in various trees and have been able to locate at least ten trees in our research area, of various species, that show clear evidence of tree climbing.
Jaguars are not as agile in trees as leopards and they certainly do not spend as much time in the trees, but they are fully capable of doing so. From a design point of view it is interesting to look at the tail length. The leopard is very arboreal and has a long tail to aid in balance. The jaguar has a much shorter tail. An indicator that tree climbing is less important in its life. The reason: lack of predators. Leopards have to hoist their kills to avoid other predators such as lion, hyena and wild dog. Jaguars are the apex predator of the Americas and so have no reason to need to carry kills into trees. They simply outcompete everything else on the ground!
Leopards do not like water! They will do everything in their power to avoid having to go through it. The jaguar, like the tiger, seems to be content with spending lengthy periods of time in the water. Jaguars in the Pantanal do not have a choice…they live in a wetland. We have tracked a jaguar with her 3-month-old cub…both her and the cub ended up swimming across 100m of open water.
This is one of the least known aspects of a jaguars lifestyle. There is quite a difference with regards to territory. Leopards are very territorial and will actively patrol, demarcate and fight for land. They will not permit other leopards moving into their area. Jaguars are less territorial and utilize more of a relaxed ‘home-range’. There is large overlap between jaguar’s home ranges and these are not nearly as actively managed and patrolled. Recent studies from Brazil have shown male jaguars to not show strong aggression or territorial defense against other jaguars. A jaguar will have a ‘core’ area in which he/she may be the only cat, but this area is small relative to the land used by that individual.
In the Pantanal a male jaguar may use as much as 170km2 and a female closer on 70km2. Male leopards at Londolozi Game Reserve (Kruger National Park) could have a territory of roughly 40km2 and a female of approximately 15km2. Although there can be huge variation in these numbers, the averages serve the purpose of illustrating how Jaguars utilize an incredibly large area.
Leopards kill using a suffocating bite. This bite will usually be around the throat, or may in fact be around the mouth. The jaguar prefers to use one of two methods: 1) killing by canines piercing through prey’s skull (only large cat to use this technique) and 2) By severing the spinal column/backbone with a powerful bite and breaking the neck. Both species of cat prefer to hunt by stalking and ambush rather then lengthy chases.
Leopards are the cat with the most varied diet. They eat just about anything. The current dietary list for a leopard sits at just under 100 species. Jaguars are not far behind on 85. Both these cats show signs that they are able to adapt to feeding on whatever is in the area. In the Pantanal jaguars eat a large number of big animals like cattle. It is said that the jaguar is the only Big Cat, which shows particular liking to reptiles (turtles, tortoises, caimans and snakes).
Both species show a tendency to move a kill once it has been made. However, due to the nature of the prey, a jaguar will usually drag its prize whilst walking backwards. A leopard, on the other hand, will pull it forwards. Jaguars do not attempt to hide their kills using leaves or sand, a practice often seen with leopards.
These are just some of the differences between the two cats. I trust you learnt something interesting…
Written and photographed by Adam Bannister
Please note that this comparison solely represents the opinions from my own observations and time spent with 1) Leopards at Londolozi Game Reserve (Kruger National Park) and 2) Jaguars at Caiman Ecological Refuge (Pantanal). I am fully aware that numbers, averages and stats will be different if one samples a different population. This serves merely as an example.