Jaguar, Leopard & Cheetah: Differences

Jaguars, leopards, and cheetahs are among the world’s most beloved animals, but many people don’t actually know the difference between them! While all three of these great animals have spots, they are by no means the same animal.

If you want to find out the differences between them, and learn how to tell them apart, just keep reading!

We’ll be going through everything you need to know in order to spot the differences between these three carnivores.

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Jaguars, Leopards, and Cheetahs – How to Tell Them Apart

Jaguar Overview

Scientific name – Panthera Onca

Lifespan – 12-15 years in the wild / 18-20 years in captivity

Jaguars are stunning animals found in the Americas. They are large spotted carnivores and are famous for their abilities to swim and hunt in water. Jaguars look very similar to leopards, but there are some distinct differences that we will be going over later on.

There are a number of different subpopulations of jaguars, though there are no scientifically recognized subspecies, unlike many other animals. These cats are arguably some of the most stunning hunters in the world.

They are known for hunting caiman in the rivers of the Americas, but also tapir and deer. Animals such as capybaras, birds, iguanas, fish and monkeys are also on the menu for these amazing cats. Since they aren’t afraid to get their toes wet, there is very little that a jaguar won’t try to have for its next meal.

Their immense strength and bite force of over 2,000 lbs makes things like turtle shells easy to get through. For reference – a 2,000 lbs bite force is twice that of a lion’s.

This immense force also means that they have no issues biting through the skulls of their prey to kill them quickly.

Leopard Overview

Scientific name – Panthera Pardus

Lifespan – 12-17 years in the wild / 19-23 years in captivity

Leopards are similar to jaguars in the way that they have spots and are a similar color. However, they are much smaller and are not found in the Americas.

As their scientific name suggests, leopards are in the same family as jaguars. Leopards, however, have a number of subspecies, and these animals can be found in Africa as well as Asia.

They are thought to be the most widespread of all cats, ranging from as far north as Russia (Panthera pardus orientalis) to South Africa (Panthera pardus pardus).

These incredibly agile animals can climb and jump to trees without a problem. Their strength means that they can also haul their prey up trees so that it cannot be eaten by other predators.

Although running isn’t what they are known for, leopards are fast runners, and are successful hunters, though they primarily rely on stalking.

They mostly hunt at night, and are capable enough to go for anything from animals such as warthogs, baboons, impala and sometimes even kudu. Buffalo and eland are less likely to be targeted because of their immense size and strength.

In this post, we will be focusing on the Panthera pardus leopard species, which has a number of subspecies.

This means that we will not be covering the snow leopard (Panthera uncia) or clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa).

Cheetah Overview

Scientific name – Acinonyx Jubatus

Lifespan – 10-12 years in the wild / 17-20 years in captivity

Cheetahs are the ones that stand out compared to jaguars and leopards. These animals are distinctly different, as they are not part of the Panthera family, and do not have retractable claws.

There have been arguments for and against cheetahs being considered true cats, and as it stands now, they are.

These animals are simply seen as being specialized cats, as they live very different lifestyles to jaguars and leopards. Like leopards, there are also a number of cheetah subspecies that can be found in both Africa and Asia.

These animals are likely to go for smaller prey, such as impala or gazelle. As cheetahs are not exceptionally strong like leopards or jaguars, they are careful with what they prey on.

They rely on their amazing short bursts of speed to catch their next meal. Because of this, they are not the most capable hunters, and are known to return empty-handed on many occasions.

Appearance – Everything You Need to Know About How They Look

Jaguar

Height – 30 inches at the shoulder

Length – 6 feet without tail, 8.6 feet with tail

Weight – 215 lbs

Physique – muscular

The jaguar is the heaviest of these three spotted cats, and the third-largest cat species in the world. They are very muscular and are a lot more “chunky” than their leopard and cheetah counterparts.

These animals are incredibly strong, and are generally broader than leopards. Like most large cats, they have white spots on the back of their ears to act as false eyes.

Spots on a jaguar are not solid black. Instead, they are rosettes. The spots on jaguars are larger than leopards’, and they are thicker.

More black makes up the rosette, and in the middle, are more spots (usually just one or two small ones). This sets them apart from the spots you will see on a leopard.

In terms of color, jaguars can range from a deep orange to a paler orange, depending on where they are in the Americas. You also get the rare black jaguar, which are very distinguishable.

Contrary to popular belief, however, black jaguars still have spots! They’re just less visible due to the dark coloring.

Leopard

Height – 28 inches at the shoulder

Length – 6.2 feet without tail, 10.7 feet with tail

Weight – 132 lbs

Physique – athletic but slim

Leopards look similar to jaguars, but are a little smaller and slimmer. While still very strong, leopards are not broad and “chunky” like jaguars.

These animals also have the white spots on the back of their ears to ward off other predators. Leopard’s have longer tails, and are very capable tree climbers.

The pelt of a leopard also has rosettes on it. However, these rosettes are smaller and have thinner black borders. Inside the rosettes, there are no smaller spots.

The color of these animals can also vary depending on where they are in the world. For example, leopards in desert environments are likely to have paler coloring compared to those in thick forests.

Like black jaguars, black (or melanistic) leopards also occur in nature. While this is very rare, it is also extremely beautiful. In black leopards, the rosettes are still visible, but less clearly because of the dark pigmentation.

Cheetah

Height – 37.6 inches at the shoulder

Length – 5 feet without tail, 7.8 feet with tail

Weight – 160 lbs

Physique – slim

Cheetahs are noticeably different from jaguars and leopards. These animals do not have retractable claws like most cats do, and they are much slimmer and taller. Cheetahs have true “spots” rather than rosettes.

As such, they are covered in black spots with no blank space in the middle of them.

Because of their environment and hunting, cheetahs are very slim and fast (the fastest land carnivore in the world), reaching speeds of almost 81 miles per hour.

These animals also have the distinctive “tear drop” line going down their faces. This line starts at the inner corner of their eyes and runs down to the top of their mouth.

As such, cheetahs have very distinctive and recognizable faces compared to jaguars and leopards.

There are mutations that occur in cheetah populations to cause different pigmentation.

These cheetahs are known as “king cheetahs”, and while they aren’t a subspecies, they are incredibly beautiful.

King cheetahs have thick black lines running down their backs, and much larger black spots on their bodies. At times, these spots may appear to be rosettes, too.

Vocalization – What do These Big Cats Sound Like?

Jaguar

Jaguars can roar, but they also make other sounds. The sound they make can often be referred to as “sawing” as it sounds like a saw cutting through wood in one direction.

However, they can also make a nasal snuffle sound when they greet one another. Jaguars don’t purr, though, so if you’re looking for a large cat that purrs, look at leopards or pumas!

Leopard

Leopards make a range of sounds. They can meow, much like domestic cats, and also purr!

When they are angry, they can also growl, spit, and snarl. Most leopards call during the night, and have a very recognizable roar or low, raspy call.

Cheetah

Cheetahs don’t roar. In fact, they don’t make very threatening sounds at all, except for their growling or hissing. These animals actually “chirp”, and sound like birds!

Other sounds they make can include purring, gurgling, and yelping, depending on the situation. They are very unique in this aspect, and their sounds are more cute than anything else.

Location – Where You Can Find These Cats

Jaguar

Jaguars are only found in the Americas. This includes Central and South America, and the southern United States, such as Florida. They thrive in thick jungles, and are primarily found in the Amazon Rainforest, in countries like Brazil.

Leopard

Leopards are very widespread. You can find them throughout Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. They can be found in South Africa to the Sahara, Iran, Sri Lanka, India, China, and even Russia.

These are the most widespread of all big cats, and can thrive in a range of environments. Many leopards do well in dear desert areas, while others thrive in jungles and savannas.

Cheetah

Cheetahs can be found in various parts of Africa, including Southern Africa and the north near the deserts. However, they also occur in countries such as Iran.

They are not exceptionally widespread, but can do well in open grasslands. They would not do well in jungles or thick forests, as they require open space to hunt.

Final Thoughts

Jaguars, leopards, and cheetahs are all vastly different animals, despite them all having spots. Jaguars are by far the largest of the three, and are only found in the Americas.

Leopards, though widespread, are primarily found in savannas and forests from Africa to Asia. Cheetahs are the true odd ones out in this scenario – with no retractable claws and no roar. They are found in Africa and some parts of Asia.

While cheetahs look distinctly different, there is often confusion around leopards and jaguars.

If you struggle with this issue when looking at a photo, the best thing you can do is take a look at the spots and how “chunky” the animal is.

Jaguars will have large rosettes with smaller spots in them, and they are chunky. Leopards, on the other hand, have smaller rosettes without spots in the middle, and are much leaner.

However, the best way to differentiate between these animals is based on their location, if this information is available to you.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are leopards, cheetahs, and jaguars the same animal?

No, they are three distinctly different animals. Both jaguars and leopards are part of the Pantherus family, but the cheetah is part of the Acinonyx family.

Do jaguars and leopards have different spots?

Yes. While both jaguars and leopards have rosettes, they are different. The rosettes on a jaguar are larger and darker, and often have smaller spots inside them. Leopard’s rosettes are smaller, have thinner borders, and do not have spots in them.

Do cheetahs and leopards have different spots?

Yes. Leopards have rosettes, while cheetahs have true spots. In other words, the markings on a leopard are “spots”, but are made up of spots, rather than being a single black mark.

Are cheetahs bigger than leopards?

Cheetahs are taller than leopards at the shoulder, but are much leaner than leopards, with long legs and a long tail.

How fast can cheetahs run?

Cheetahs can reach speeds of almost 81 miles per hour.

Do jaguars like water?

Unlike most cats, jaguars enjoy being in the water and are very strong swimmers.

How strong are leopard’s jaws?

The jaws of a leopard are thought to be capable of having a biting force of 1,100 lbs

Where can you find leopards?

Leopards can be found in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. You can find leopards in South Africa, and as far north as parts of Russia.

How many subspecies of leopards are there?

Nine. There are nine subspecies of leopard that are recognized. These include the African leopard, Indian, Arabian, Javan, Persian, North Chinese, Sri Lankan, Indochinese, and the Amur. Melanistic leopards are not subspecies, but mutations.

Is there more than one type of jaguar?

Technically, no. There are a number of subpopulations of jaguars, but not other subspecies.

Do cheetahs roar?

No, cheetahs can’t roar. They primarily chirp, like birds.

Is a leopard or a cheetah faster?

Cheetahs are the fastest land carnivores in the world, reaching speeds of up to 81 miles per hour. Leopards can only run at speeds of around 36 miles per hour.

Which is the biggest, a leopard, jaguar, or cheetah?

The jaguar is the biggest, or heaviest, of these cats. The largest jaguar ever recorded weighed over 300 lbs, though most male jaguars will only reach weights of up to 220 lbs.

Joe Edwards
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