JAGUAR : The only ‘big cat’ of Americas

Jaguar (public domain)The third-largest feline after tiger and lion, jaguar (Panthera onca) is the only Panthera species found in the Americas. In other words it is the only ‘big cat’ (scientifically speaking there are only four big cats and other three are tiger, lion and leopard) found in the New World. It is the largest cat in the Western Hemisphere whose present range extends from Southern US and Mexico across much of Central America and south to Paraguay and northern Argentina. Leaving aside a known and possibly breeding population in Arizona, the cat has largely been extirpated from the US since the early 20th century. (To know more about ‘Big Cats’ please see “Wild Cats’ Origin”)

Being a spotted feline it most closely resembles leopard in appearance, although it is larger and sturdier and it’s behavioural and habitat characteristics are closer to those of the tiger. Being a keystone species, jaguars play an important role in stabilizing ecosystems and to regulate population of animals they hunt. These opportunistic and stalk-and-ambush predators are largely solitary and are at the top of the food chain, usually called an apex predator.

They usually prefer dense rainforests, but range across a variety of forested and open terrains. Like tigers, jaguars too are strongly associated with the presence of water and enjoy swimming. Their bite is exceptionally powerful, even relative to the other big cats. It is so forceful that it pierces even the shells of armoured reptiles. To employ an unusual killing method: it bites directly through the skull of its prey between the ears to deliver a fatal bite to the brain.

Etymology

The name of the animal has come to English from one of the Tupi-Guarani languages, presumably Amazonian trade language Tupinamba, via Portuguese jaguar. The Tupian word, yaguara meaning “beast”, is sometimes translated as “dog”. The specific word for this cat is yaguareté, with the suffix -eté meaning “real” or “true”.

The first component of its taxonomic designation, Panthera, is Latin, from the Greek word for leopard, the type species for the genus. This is said to have derived from two words. First means “all” and the second means “predator”. The composite meaning is “predator of all” (animals), though this may be a folk etymology.

Onca is the Portuguese onca, with the cedilla dropped for typographical reasons, found in English as ounce for the snow leopard (Uncia uncial). It derives from the Latin lyncea lynx, with the letter L confused with the definite article (Italian lonza, Old French l’once). In many Central and South American countries, the cat is referred to as el tigre (the tiger).

Ancestry

Jaguars are now found only in the Americas, but the fact is they have descended from Old World cats. DNA evidence shows tigers, lions, leopards, jaguars, clouded leopard and snow leopards share common ancestors, and this group is between six and ten million years old; the fossil record shows the emergence of Panthera just two to 3.8 million years ago. While the Phylogenetic studies show clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) as basal to this group, the position of the remaining species varies between studies and is effectively unresolved.

Scientists are of the opinion that about two million years ago jaguar and its closest relative, the similarly spotted leopard, shared a common ancestor in Asia. During the early Pleistocene era, the forerunners of modern jaguars moved across Beringia, a land bridge spanning the Bering Strait and connected Asia and North America. Ancestors of jaguars then crept south into Central and South America, feeding on deer and other grazing animals.

The British zoologist Reginald Pocock concluded on the basis of morphological evidence that the jaguar is most closely related to the leopard. However, DNA evidence is uncertain; the position of jaguar relative to other species varies between studies. Fossils of extinct Panthera species, like the American lion (Panthera atrox), and the European jaguar (Panthera gombaszoegensis), show characteristics of both the lion and the jaguar. The analysis of mitochondrial DNA of jaguar has dated the species’ lineage between 280,000 and 510,000 years ago, later than suggested by fossil records.

Geographical variation

Jaguar_head-  (GNUFD License)
Jaguar_head- (GNUFD License)

Pocock made the last taxonomic description of jaguar subspecies on the basis of geographic origins and skull morphology in 1939. He recognized eight subspecies; though, he did not have access to enough specimens to critically assess all. He expressed doubt about the status of several. Later deliberation over his work suggested only three subspecies should be recognized.

The studies done in recent years have also failed to discover evidences for well-defined subspecies. Larson (1997) too studied morphological variation in the animal and found there is clinal north–south variation and thus does not warrant subspecies subdivision. A genetic study by Eizirik and coworkers in 2001 established the absence of a clear geographical subspecies structure. They, however, found that major geographical barriers, like the Amazon River, limited the exchange of genes between the different populations. A later, more-detailed study established the predicted population structure within the Colombian jaguars.

Subspecies divisions described by Pocock are still commonly listed in general descriptions. Seymour has grouped them in three subspecies.

  1. Panthera onca onca: Venezuela through the Amazon, including
    • P. onca peruviana (Peruvian jaguar): Coastal Peru
  2. P. onca hernandesii (Mexican jaguar): Western Mexico – including
    • P. onca centralis (Central American jaguar): El Salvador to Colombia
    • P. onca arizonensis (Arizonan jaguar): Southern Arizona to Sonora, Mexico
    • P. onca veraecrucis: Central Texas to southeastern Mexico
    • P. onca goldmani (Goldman’s jaguar): Yucatán Peninsula to Belize and Guatemala
  3. P. onca palustris (the largest subspecies, weighing more than 135 kg or 300 lb): The Pantanal regions of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil, along the Paraguay River into Paraguay and northeastern Argentina.

The interesting part is that Mammal Species of the World still recognizes nine subspecies. Above mentioned eight subspecies plus P. o. paraguensis.

Physical characteristics

Jaguars are compact and well-muscled cats. Their weight and size vary to a large extent: weight is generally in the range of 56–96 kilos (124–211 lb). Larger males have been recorded as heavy as 160 kilos (350 lb) (almost equal to a lioness or tigress). Females are characteristically 10–20% smaller than males and the smallest may have low weights of 36 kg (79 lb). In length jaguars vary from 1.2 to 1.95 m (3.9 to 6.4 ft), with their tails adding another 45 to 75 cm (18 to 30 in). They stand 63 to 76 cm (25 to 30 in) tall at the shoulders. Like the slightly smaller Old World leopard, this cat is relatively short and stocky in build.

Further differences in weight and sizes have been found across regions and habitats. It has been observed that the size tends to increase from north to south. A study in the Chamela-Cuixmala Biosphere Reserve on the Mexican Pacific coast, demonstrated ranges of just about 50 kilograms (110 lb), which is about the size of the cougar. On the other hand a study in the Brazilian Pantanal region showed average weight of 100 kilograms (220 lb). Weights of 136 kilograms (300 lb) or more are not uncommon in old males. Jaguars living in forested areas are commonly darker and noticeably smaller than those found in open areas (the Pantanal is an open wetland basin), possibly due to the smaller numbers of large, herbivorous prey in forest areas.

Jaguars closely resemble leopards, but they are sturdier and heavier. Both animals can be set apart by the rosettes on their bodies: while jaguars have larger rosettes on their coat, fewer in number, usually darker, and have thicker lines and small spots in the middle, which leopards lack. Jaguars also have rounder heads and shorter, stockier limbs compared to leopards.

Jaguar’s favourite prey is herbivores weighing up to 300 kilograms (660 lb) in dense jungle. Its short and sturdy physique is thus an adaptation to its prey and environment. The base coat of the cat is usually tawny yellow, but can range to reddish-brown and black. Rosettes help the animal to camouflage in its jungle habitat. Spots or rosettes vary from individual to individual; they may include one or several dots, and even the shapes may vary. Rosettes on the head and neck are usually solid, as are those on the tail, where they may merge to form a band. Throat, outer surface of the legs, underbelly and the lower flanks are white.

Feline with powerful jaws

The body structure of jaguar is very uniquely suitable for the kind of life it lives. Short and stocky limbs make the animal adept at climbing, crawling and swimming. The head is robust with extremely powerful jaw. This animal has the strongest bite of all felids. It is capable of biting down with 2,000 pounds-force (8,900 N), which is twice the strength of a lion and the second powerful of all mammals after the spotted hyena; It allows the jaguar to pierce turtle shells. The strength of the cat is such that an individual can drag a 360 kg (800 lb) bull 8 m (25 ft) in its jaws and crush the strongest bones.

Colour morphism

Colour morphism is found in this species. A near-black melanistic forms occur regularly. Jaguars with melanism appear entirely black, although their spots can still be seen on close examination.

The black morph is less common than the spotted form, but still about six percent of the population is found melanistic. Such jaguars are informally known as black panthers, but like all forms of polymorphism, they do not form a separate species.

As an extremely rare cases albino individuals, sometimes called white panthers, also occur, as with the other big cats. As usual with albinos in the wild, selection keeps the frequency close to the rate of mutation.

Life cycle and reproduction

Females in jaguars reach sexual maturity at about two years of age, and males at three or four. The cat is believed to mate throughout the year in the wild, but birth rate depends upon the availability of food. Number of births increase when prey is plentiful. Research on captive male jaguars supports the year-round mating hypothesis, with no seasonal variation in semen traits and ejaculatory quality; low reproductive success has also been observed in captivity. Female estrus is 6–17 days out of a full 37-day cycle, and females will advertise fertility with increased vocalization and urinary scent marks. Both sexes will range more widely than usual during courtship.

After mating, pairs separate and the female takes up the sole responsibility of parenting. Gestation period spreads from 93 to 105 days; usually two cubs are born, but the number can double. Once the cubs are born mother never tolerates the presence of males, there is always a risk of infanticide; this behaviour is similar to that found in tigers.

Jaguar cubs are born blind and gain sight after two weeks. Cubs are weaned at three months, but remain in the birth den for six months before leaving to accompany their mother on hunts. They remain with their mother under her watchful eyes for one to two years and after that leave to establish their own territory. After leaving their mother young males usually spend their early years leading a nomadic life, jostling with their older counterparts until they succeed in claiming a territory. Jaguar’s lifespan in the wild is estimated at around 12–15 years; in captivity, they live up to 23 years, placing it among the longest-lived cats.

Social Life

Like most cats, the jaguars too are solitary animals outside mother-cub groups. Adults normally come closer only to court and mate (though few non-courting socialization has also been observed) and carve out large territories for themselves. Territories of females, which range from 25 to 40 km2 in size, may overlap, but the cats usually avoid one another. Territories of males cover roughly twice as much area, varying in size with the availability of food and space, and do not overlap. These cats use scrape marks, urine, and faeces to mark their territories.

Like the other three big cats (tiger, lion and leopard), jaguars are also capable of roaring and does so to warn territorial and mating competitors away; rigorous bouts of counter-calling between various individuals have been observed in the wild. Their call often resembles a repetitive cough, and they may also vocalize mews and grunts. Mating fights among males do occur, but they are rare. Aggression avoidance behaviour has also been seen in the wild. Whenever it occurs, conflict takes place usually over territory: male jaguar’s range may include that of two or three females, and he will not tolerate intrusions by other males.

This cat is often described as nocturnal, but the fact is it is more specifically crepuscular, which means its activity peaks around dawn and dusk. Both sexes are hunter, but males travel farther each day than females, as their territories are larger. They are relatively energetic feline and spend as much as 50 to 60 per cent of their time being active. They may also hunt during the day if game is available. Jaguar’s elusive nature and the inaccessibility of much of its preferred habitat make it a difficult animal to see, let alone study.

Hunting and diet

Like all cats, jaguars too are an obligate carnivore – feeding only on meat. The diet of this opportunistic hunter includes 87 species, but it prefers large prey and usually takes adult capybaras, caimans, peccaries, deer, tapirs, dogs, foxes, and sometimes even anacondas – one of the largest snakes in the world. However, they can eat any small species that can be caught, including monkeys, turtles, frogs, mice, birds, fish and sloths; a study done in Belize’s Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary revealed jaguars living there feed primarily on armadillos and pacas. Like many other big cats some jaguars also go for domestic livestock, including cattle and horses.

Jaguars employ deep throat-bite and suffocation technique typical among Panthera. It prefers a killing method which is unique amongst the cats: once the prey is brought down this powerful animal pierces directly through the temporal bones of the skull between the ears (especially the capybara) with its canines, damaging the brain. This may be an adaptation to “cracking open” turtle shells; following the late Pleistocene extinctions, armoured reptiles such as turtles would have formed an abundant prey base for the jaguars. Bite on Skull is employed while dealing with mammals in particular, whereas in the case of reptiles, like caiman, jaguars usually leap on to their back and sever the cervical vertebrae, thus immobilizing the target. While capable of cracking turtle shells, jaguars easily reach to their flesh and scoop it out. With prey as smaller as dogs, a paw swipe to the skull may be sufficient.

It is a stalk-and-ambush instead of a chase predator. It walks slowly down the forest paths, listening for and stalking prey before rushing or ambushing. This clever cat attacks from the cover and usually from the target’s blind spot with a quick pounce; its ability to ambush is nearly peerless in the animal kingdom. It even includes leaping into the water after the prey, as jaguars are quite capable of carrying a large kill even while swimming; animal’s strength is such that carcass as large as a heifer can be hauled up a tree to avoid flood levels.

It is in the habit of the animal that after killing a prey it drags the carcass to a thicket or any other secluded spot. It starts eating at the neck and chest, rather than the midsection. The heart and lungs are consumed first, followed by the shoulders. The daily food requirement of a 34-kilogram animal, at the extreme low end of the species’ weight range, has been estimated at 1.4 kilograms. For captive animals in the 50–60 kilogram range, more than two kilos of meat daily is recommended. In the wild, consumption is more unpredictable as the animal expends considerable energy in capturing and killing the prey. In such conditions it may consume up to 25 kilos of meat at one feeding (in the wild jaguars do not get food every day). Unlike some other members of Panthera genus, jaguars rarely attack humans. Most of the scant cases where they have turned to taking humans show that the animals were either old with damaged teeth or were wounded.

Distribution

Jaguar has been an American cat since it crossed the Bering Land Bridge during the Pleistocene; its direct ancestor is Panthera onca augusta, which was bigger than the modern cat. Its present range extends from Mexico, through Central America and into South America, including much of Amazonian Brazil. The countries included in the range are Brazil, United States, Argentina, Belize, Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, French Guiana, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Guyana, Honduras, Panama, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Suriname, Peru and Venezuela. This cat is now extinct in El Salvador and Uruguay.

In the United States jaguars have been occasionally sighted in the southwest, particularly in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. In the early 20th century, the animal’s range spread over as far north as the Grand Canyon, and as far west as Southern California. Jaguar is now a protected species in the US, which has stopped the shooting of animal for its pelt.

In 1996 and from 2004 onwards, wildlife officials in Arizona documented and photographed jaguars in the southern part of the state. From 2004 to 2007, two or three jaguars were reported by researchers around Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in southern Arizona. One of them, named ‘Macho B’, was photographed earlier in 1996. On 25 February 2009, another Jaguar was captured, radio-collared and released in an area southwest of Tucson, Arizona; this is farther north than had previously been expected and represents a sign there may be a permanent breeding population of jaguars within southern Arizona. The animal was later confirmed to be indeed the same male individual (‘Macho B’) that was photographed in 2004, and is now the oldest known jaguar in the wild (about 15 years old). On 2 March 2009, Macho B was recaptured and euthanized after he was found to be suffering from kidney failure.

The historic range of the species comprised much of the southern half of US, and in the south extended much farther to cover most of the South American continent. Today on the whole animal’s northern range has diminished 1,000 km (621 mi) southward and southern range 2,000 km (1243 mi) northward. Ice age fossils, dated between 40,000 and 11,500 years ago, discovered in site as far north as Missouri shows jaguars of up to 190 kg (420 lb) weight, which is much larger than the contemporary average animal.

Habitat

Jaguars are found in the rain forests of South and Central America, open and seasonally flooded wetlands and dry grassland habitat. Out of these, jaguars usually prefer dense forest; the animal has lost its range most rapidly in regions of drier habitat, such as the pampas of Argentina, dry grasslands of Mexico, and the southwestern United States. Jaguars prefer to live near water bodies, which include rivers, swamps etc. Dense rainforests with thick cover for stalking prey are also their fovourite habitats. They are found at elevations of up to 3,800 m, but they typically avoid montane forest (they occur between the submontane zone and the subalpine zone) and are not found in the high plateau of central Mexico or in the Andes.

Jaguars and Leopards in Australia ?

There are reports about the existence of a colony of nonnative, melanistic jaguars or leopards inhabiting the rainforests around Sydney, Australia. A local report compiled statements from over 450 people telling their stories of seeing large black cats in the area. Besides, a confidential NSW Government documents regarding the matter proved wildlife authorities were so concerned about the big cats and the danger to humans, they commissioned an expert to catch one. The three-day hunt later failed, but ecologist Johannes J. Bauer warned: “Difficult as it seems to accept, the most likely explanation is the presence of a large, feline predator. In this area, [it is] most likely a leopard, less likely a jaguar.”

Other versions about the presence of big cats say a few traces of circumstantial evidence indicate it is in fact feral cats in the country that are now reaching huge sizes, comparable to that of a small leopard.

It is said that the country’s feral population is descendent of domestic cats which early British settlers brought with them to control mice on their ships. Some believe that, over the years these cats have mutated or evolved into the size of their big cousins.

Other version is that American soldiers brought pumas and panthers with them as mascots while they were stationed in Australia during World War II. When they left they set them free. Some say miners kept the big cats to guard their stakes. There is the common zoo or circus escapee explanation also; however, this has not been substantiated in the case of country’s mystery cats. Records are there of three escaped lions and one fugitive tiger. Of these two lions were killed and the third returned to its cage. The tiger was recaptured.

After the analysis of scat and paw trails of cats, experts claim they could be those of a puma. Despite the numerous claimed sightings of Alien Big Cats (ABCs) in the Grampian Mountains, officials have neither denied nor confirmed the presence of pumas and panthers in Australia and are keeping investigative files open.

Ecological role

Being the apex predator, existing at the top of the food chain and not preyed upon in the wild, jaguars are also termed as a keystone species. By controlling the population of prey such as granivorous and herbivorous mammals, apex predators maintain the structural integrity of forest systems. It is an established fact that mid-sized prey species go through a population increases in the absence of keystone predators, and this has been hypothesized to have surging negative effects. However, field work has shown this may be natural changeability and the population increases may not be sustained. As a result, the keystone predator hypothesis is not accepted by all experts.

Jaguars also have an effect on other predators. They and the cougar, the next-largest feline of Americas but not included in the list of four ‘big cats’, are often sympatric (related species sharing overlapping territory) and have normally been studied in conjunction. Where sympatric with jaguars, cougars are smaller than the local jaguars. While jaguars tend to take larger prey species, cougars are contented with the smaller once, reducing the latter’s size. This situation may be beneficial to the cougar. Its broader prey slot, including its ability to take smaller prey, may give it a lead over jaguars in human-altered landscapes; cougars have significantly larger current distribution.

Conservation status

Population of jaguar is declining rapidly. They are considered Near Threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), which means they may be threatened with extinction in the near future. Decline in its range, its virtual elimination from its historic northern areas and the increasing fragmentation of the remaining range are some of the main factors that have contributed to this state. The 1960s had especially significant declines, with more than 15,000 jaguar skins brought out of the Brazilian Amazon yearly; the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) of 1973 brought about a sharp decline in the pelt trade. Detailed work done with the support of the Wildlife Conservation Society exposed the animal has lost 37 per cent of its historic range, with its status not known in an additional 18 per cent. More encouragingly, the likelihood of long-term survival was considered high in 70 per cent of its remaining range, mainly in the Amazon basin and the adjoining Gran Chaco and Pantanal.

Deforestation, competition for food with humans, poaching, natural disasters like hurricanes in northern parts of its range, and the behaviour of ranchers who often kill the cat where it preys on livestock are the major risk factors for jaguars. While clearance of land for grazing is a problem for the species, the jaguar population may have increased when cattle were first introduced to South America, as the animals took advantage of the new prey base. Cat’s inclination towards taking livestock has encouraged ranch owners to hire full-time jaguar hunters, and the cat is often shot on sight

Jaguars are placed as Appendix I species under CITES, which means all international trade in the animal or its body parts is prohibited. Its hunting is banned in Belize, Argentina, Colombia, Honduras, French Guiana, Paraguay, Nicaragua, Panama, Suriname, the United States, Venezuela and Uruguay. Jaguar hunting is restricted to “problem animal” in Costa Rica, Brazil, Guatemala, Peru and Mexico; Bolivia still permits trophy hunting. In Ecuador or Guyana the species enjoys no legal protection.

Conservation efforts going on currently usually focus on educating ranch owners and promoting ecotourism. This apex predator is commonly defined as an umbrella species, which means its home range and habitat requirements are adequately broad, if protected, several other species of smaller range will also automatically get protection.

Particularly in the central Amazon, where much of the species’ range is inaccessible, estimating jaguar population is very difficult. In such situation researchers normally focus on particular bioregions, hence species-wide analysis is inadequate. For instance, in 1991, 600 to 1,000 (the highest total) were estimated to be living in Belize. A year earlier, 125–180 jaguars were estimated to be living in Mexico’s 4,000-km2 (2400-mi2) Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, with another 350 in the state of Chiapas. The adjoining Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala, with an area measuring 15,000 km2 (9,000 mi2), may have 465–550 animals. Work employing GPS telemetry in 2003 and 2004 found densities of only six to seven jaguars per 100 km2 in the critical Pantanal region, compared with 10 to 11 using traditional methods; this indicates the widely used sampling methods may inflate the actual numbers of cats.

Jaguars in United States

Jaguar, the only existing cat native to North America that roars, was recorded as an animal of the Americas by Thomas Jefferson in 1799. There are numerous zoological reports of the animal’s presence in California, two as far north as Monterey in 1814 (Langsdorff) and 1826 (Beechey). The Cahuilla Indians of Palm Springs and coastal Diegueño (Kumeyaay people) of San Diego had words for this feline and the other cats that were present there until about 1860. According to the only confirmed account of an active jaguar den with breeding adults and cubs in the U.S. was in the California’s Tehachapi Mountains prior to 1860.

Rufus Sage, an explorer, recorded jaguar presence on the headwaters of the North Platte River 30–50 miles north of Long’s Peak in Colorado in 1843. Cabot’s 1544 map has a drawing of jaguar ranging over the Pennsylvania and Ohio valleys. Historically, this cat was recorded in far eastern Texas, and the northern parts of Arizona and New Mexico. However, since 1940s, it has been restricted to the southern parts of these states. Though less trustworthy than the zoological records native American artifacts with probable jaguar motifs range from the Pacific Northwest to Pennsylvania and Florida.

In United States these spotted cats were fast eliminated by Anglo-Americans, along with most other large predators. The last female in the US was shot by a hunter in White Mountains of Arizona in 1963. In 1969, state of Arizona banned most jaguar hunting, but with no females known to be living in the wild, there was little hope the population could rebound. The ban could not prove to be very beneficial. During the next 25 years, only two male jaguars were recorded in the US and both were killed: one was shot in 1971 near the Santa Cruz River by two teenage duck hunters, and another was cornered by hounds in the Dos Cabezas Mountains in 1986.

In 1996, Warner Glenn, a rancher and hunting guide from Douglas (Arizona), came across a jaguar in the Peloncillo Mountains and became interested in jaguar research. He placed webcams at different places which recorded four more Arizona jaguars. On November 19, 2011, a male was photographed near Cochise in southern Arizona by a hunter after being cornered by his dogs, but it escaped unharmed. This is the last spotted cat seen since another male, named Macho B, died shortly after being radio-collared by Arizona Game and Fish Department (AGFD) officials in March, 2009. None of the other four male jaguars sighted in Arizona in the last 15 years have been seen since 2006. However, a second 2011 sighting of an Arizona jaguar was reported in June 2011, and conservation researchers sighted two jaguars within 30 miles of the Mexico/U.S. border in 2010.

A legal step by the Center for Biological Diversity led to federal registering of jaguar on the endangered species list in 1997. However, President George W. Bush appointee H. Dale Hall, Director of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, signed a recommendation to abandon jaguar recovery as a federal goal under the Endangered Species Act on January 7, 2008. This led to severe criticism of the government action and the critics, including the Center of Biological Diversity and New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, expressed grave concern by saying that the jaguar was being sacrificed for the government’s new border fence, which is to be built along many of the cat’s typical crossings between the US and Mexico. In 2010, after Barack Obama became president the US Administration reversed the previous government’s policy and pledged to protect “critical habitat” and draft a recovery plan for the species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is under a court order to develop a jaguar recovery plan and designate critical habitat for the cats.

Jaguar in mythology and culture

Pre-Columbian Americas

Jaguar has long been a symbol of strength and power in pre-Columbian Central and South America. Among the Andean cultures, cult associated with this cat disseminated by the early Chavín culture became accepted over most of what is today’s Peru by 900 BC. The later Moche culture of northern Peru used the animal as a symbol of power in many of their ceramics.

In Mesoamerica, the Olmec — an early and influential culture of the Gulf Coast region roughly contemporaneous with the Chavín — developed a distinct “were-jaguar” motif of sculptures and figurines showing stylized jaguars or humans with jaguar characteristics. In the later Maya civilization, the jaguar was believed to make possible communication between the living and the dead and to protect the royal household. The Mayans saw these felines as their companions in the spiritual world, and a number of Mayan rulers bore names that included Mayan word for jaguar (b’alam in many of the Mayan languages). The civilization of Aztec shared the image of jaguar as the representative of the ruler and as a warrior. The Aztecs formed an elite warrior class known as the Jaguar Knights. In Aztec mythology, the cat was considered to be the totem animal of the powerful deity Tezcatlipoca.

Threats

The jaguar is a near threatened species and its numbers are declining. Threats include loss and fragmentation of habitat. While international trade in jaguars or their parts is prohibited, the cat is still frequently killed by humans, particularly in conflicts with ranchers and farmers in South America. Although the population has reduced, its range still remains large.

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