Physical characteristics of the jaguar cat

Written by amanda delgado
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Physical characteristics of the jaguar cat
The word jaguar means "he who kills with one leap." (jaguar image by Mat Hayward from

Jaguars are the third largest feline species in the world, ranking behind lions and tigers. The range of these big cats, who were worshipped in ancient times, extends from central Mexico to northern Argentina. Although they resemble leopards, jaguars have a few physical characteristics that distinguish them from their cousins in the Panthera genus.

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Jaguars are the biggest cats in the Americas. Adult males weigh an average of 54.4kg., although they can weigh as much as 136kg. Adult females typically weigh around 31.8kg. Jaguars measure between 3.8 and six feet in body length, with 18- to 30-inch tails. The larger jaguars inhabit open grasslands and plains in northern South America, while smaller ones roam the dense woodlands, swamps and rainforests of Central and South America, as well as desert regions in Mexico.


Unlike leopards in Africa and Asia, a jaguar's yellowish-brown or reddish-brown coat has a pattern of black rosettes with a spot in the centre and open, uneven edges. A leopard's rosettes form a complete, unbroken circle with no markings in the middle. The jaguar's coat pattern helps it remain hidden as it hunts for food. Jaguars that live in open habitats have paler rosettes than ones that inhabit forested areas. Jaguars have white muzzles and white fur on their bellies. Some jaguars that live in the deepest parts of the rainforests have black fur that shows a faint pattern of black rosettes. These cats are commonly called black panthers.


Jaguars have a broader build than most other big cats. They rely on strength rather than speed to bring down prey. Jaguars are able to hunt more than 85 different species of mammals, reptiles and amphibians due to their build and ability to swim. Their large heads have square jaws with powerful muscles and canines that can crush the skulls of animals such as caimans, tapirs, cattle and peccaries. They can also penetrate the thick shells of tortoises and turtles. Jaguars search for prey at night, since their vision is sharper in lower light. They stalk their prey, then use their stocky and muscular legs to pounce. They also hunt by twitching their long tails over water to lure fish to the surface.

Territorial Markings

Jaguars spend most of their lives alone and use a variety of methods to mark their territory. They use their claws, which stay retracted most of the time to prevent them from breaking, to leave scratches on trees or on the ground. They also vocalise through deep roars to announce their territory and to scare other jaguars or animals away from it. Urinating or defecating also serves as a way for jaguars to establish boundaries.

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