Analyzing the Strengths and Weaknesses of These Kings of The Wild
To the untrained eye, a leopard (Panthera pardus) and a Jaguar (Panthera onca) may look almost identical. They have similar patterns on their coats, and they are both of a similar size. They also both belong to the family Felidae and the genus Panthera. In truth, despite living on opposite sides of the world, they are very similar. More so than any of the other big cats.
Despite their common family lines and their obvious physical similarities, leopards and jaguars are quite different. Upon closer inspection, side by side, the physical differences become easier to see. For a start, a leopard has more solid spots and rosettes, whereas jaguars have more blocky rosettes with distinct internal spots. These are said to look like spots within spots. There are also behavioural differences too that give the game away.
In this post, we take a look at the leopard vs jaguar comparatively, exploring the many similarities and the differences between these two charismatic big cats.
Leopard Vs Jaguar Taxonomies
- Order: Carnivora
- Family: Felidae
- Subfamily: Pantherinae
- Genus: Panthera
- Species: Panthera pardus
Historically, there have been 27 subspecies of leopard proposed. However, since 2017 only 8 subspecies are accepted and these are:
- African Leopard – (Panthera pardus pardus)
- Amur Leopard – (Panthera pardus orientalis)
- Sri Lankan Leopard – (Panthera pardus kotiya)
- Javan Leopard – (Panthera pardus melas)
- Indochinese Leopard – (Panthera pardus delacouri)
- Persian Leopard – (Panthera pardus tulliana)
- Arabian Leopard – (Panthera pardus nimr)
- Indian Leopard – (Panthera pardus fusca)
- Order: Carnivora
- Family: Felidae
- Subfamily: Pantherinae
- Genus: Panthera
- Species: Panthera onca
Previously, there were many proposed subspecies of Jaguar across their range. At the peak in 2005, there were 9 recognized subspecies. In 2017 however, it was decided that the Jaguar is in fact a monotypic taxon. This means that there are actually no subspecies, and all Jaguar are of the same type, with no substantial subspecific differentiation.
Both the leopard and the jaguar make up two of the five extant species in the genus Panthera, a member of the cat family, Felidae. The other members of the genus are the lion, the snow leopard and the tiger. Collectively this cats in this genus are known as ‘the big cats‘.
There are a few collective nouns for a group of Jaguars. The most common ones are a leap, a prowl, a parade or a shadow.
A group of leopards is most commonly called a leap of leopards. Other collective nouns include a Lepe of leopards, a prowl of leopards and a snarl of leopards. The young of both these cats are called cubs, and there is no separate specific name for males or females.
Leopard Vs Jaguar – Size
Leopards are sexually dimorphic with males larger and heavier than females. Males tend to weigh between 37 and 90 kg (81.6 – 198.4 lb), and females weigh between 28 and 60 kg (61.7 – 132.3 lb). In terms of size, the average male stands between 60 to 70 cm (23.6 – 27.6 in) at the shoulder, while females are 57 to 64 cm (22.4 – 25.2 in) tall. The head-and-body length ranges between 90 and 196 cm (2 ft 11.4 in – 6 ft 5.2 in) and they have a tail between 66 to 102 cm (2 ft 2.0 in – 3 ft 4.2 in) long.
Jaguars grow to be about 1.62 – 1.83 meters (5.3 – 6 feet) in length and stand around 67 – 76 cm (27 – 30 inches) tall at the shoulders. Their tail is 2 – 3 feet (0.6 – 0.9 meters) long. Jaguars weigh around 36 kg (80 pounds). Larger jaguars have been recorded as weighing 131 – 151 kg (288 – 333 pounds)
Rainforest jaguars are generally darker and considerably smaller than those found in open areas, possibly due to the fewer large herbivorous prey in forest areas.
Leopard Vs Jaguar – Physical Differences
Jaguars and Leopards are perhaps the most similar of all the big cats. Cheetahs and leopards can also look similar, and share territory. But even some experts are unable at first to tell the difference between a jaguar and a leopard from a photo, depending on how much of the animal you can see. That is because they both have similar spots head on, but from the side, it is easy to tell the difference.
From the side, it is easier to see the difference between a leopards solid spots and rosettes, and a jaguars larger rosettes and ‘spots within spots’.
Both the jaguar and the leopard have shorter legs and longer bodies than the other big cats. The jaguar however, is usually the stockiest and heaviest of the two, with a distinctive solid and ‘blocky’ head. The leopard has a broader head, a leaner build and a longer tail that they use to assist them when climbing in the trees.
Leopards have retractable claws that they are able to draw into folds of skin on their paws to ensure that they are not blunted whilst they are walking about. These claws also assist them as very good climbers.
Key Physical Differences:
- Jaguars are stockier with a more robust head, while leopards are leaner with a longer tail
- Most leopards have a light coat with dark spots/rosettes, while jaguars have more tan or yellow in their coat. Both can be black.
- Leopards have retractable claws, jaguars do not.
Leopard Vs Jaguar – Speed
Despite being stockier and heavier, and often living in areas of dense jungle, the jaguar is actually faster than the leaner leopard. For a short time at least, jaguars are known to be able to reach speeds of up to 50 mph (80 km/h), whereas leopards are known to reach speeds of around 40 mph (65 km/h). There are sources that claim the leopard may be faster than this, but most are conclusive that the jaguar is the faster of the two.
Location & Habitat
Jaguars and leopards live thousands of miles apart on the other side of the world from each other.
The Jaguars present range extends from Mexico (with occasional sightings in the southwestern United States) across much of Central America and south to Paraguay and northern Argentina. Historically their range was much bigger, across the majority of Central America and South America, with exception of Chile and the far south.
They primarily live in rainforests, swamps, deserts and shrubby areas. They also like to live near water, and are excellent swimmers. Dens are often made within empty caves or areas of similar terrestrial cover. The jaguar is the only one of the five classical big cats that are native to the Americas, whereas the leopard shares territory and competes with many of the other big cats.
Across the 8 different subspecies of leopard, their range extends widely across sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia, as well as southern Russia, the Malayan peninsula and the Indian subcontinent. They are the widest ranging of all the big cats., but despite this, in some areas they are locally extinct and contemporary records suggest that they occur in only 25% of their historical range.
Leopards inhabit woodlands, grassland savannas, rainforests and forests, as well as mountainous, scrub, and desert habitats. They can be found in many types of habitat, as long as there is a good source of cover and an ample supply of food. They often inhabit the same areas as tigers, lions, cheetahs, spotted hyenas, striped hyenas, brown hyenas and wolves.
Home range sizes vary depending on the habitat and the food available but those of male leopards are significantly larger than those of females.
Diet & Hunting
The leopard is an ambush predator and an opportunistic carnivore. They hunt primarily at night and use their excellent vision and hearing to track down prey. The leopard will stalk its prey and tries to approach as closely as possible, before pouncing on it and killing through suffocation. They prefer medium sized ungulates such as deer, pigs and gazelles, and are even known to hunt and eat monkeys. They will also eat smaller prey to avoid competition from other large carnivores like tigers.
It kills small prey with a bite to the back of the neck, but holds larger animals by the throat and strangles them. They usually hunt on the ground, but have been observed to ambush prey by jumping down on prey from trees.
Because leopards are so strong, they can drag their prey to safety, and will even drag carcasses heavier than themselves up into trees. It eats small prey immediately but will drag larger prey to trees, caves or bushes.
The jaguar is also a stalk-and-ambush predator and is opportunistic in prey selection. It is also an apex predator and a keystone species in its ecosystem. They are known to hunt a variety of animals including birds, capybaras, peccaries, tapirs, turtles and alligators. Unlike their leopard cousins, jaguars are often known to bury their prey after killing it, so that they can eat it later.
The jaguar has an incredibly strong bite that allows it to penetrate the scales and shells of armoured reptiles, and they are known to bite directly through the skull of prey to deliver a fatal blow to the brain.
Leopards are mainly active from dusk till dawn, living a nocturnal life, hunting at night and resting for most of the day. They usually rest in thickets, among rocks or over tree branches. In this respect, they are considered to be semi-arboreal animals, as they are comfortable and can hunt from the trees. They are more comfortable and competent than any of the other big cats, including jaguars, in the trees.
Over the course of one night, they can travel has far as 75 km (47 mi). They can leap over 6 m (20 ft) horizontally, and jump up to 3 m (9.8 ft) vertically, which means they can get to prey easily from a resting position.
The leopard produces a number of vocalizations, including growls, snarls, meows and purrs. Cubs call their mother with a urr-urr sound. The whiteish spots on the back of leopards ears are thought to play a role in communication, too, although it is unsure what exactly for.
Jaguars also have many vocalizations that they use, including an impressive roar. They use this to warn territorial and mating competitors away. Intensive bouts of counter-calling between individuals have been observed in the wild. Their roar often resembles a repetitive cough and they may also vocalize mews and grunts.
In general, like most big cats jaguars are solitary outside of mating season or maternal packs. Conflict between males is typically over territory. A males range may include that of two or three females however he will not tolerate intrusions by other adult males.
While the leopard and the jaguar are the most physically similar of all the big cats, the jaguars behavioural and habitat characteristics are closer to those of the tiger.
Key Behaviour Differences:
- Jaguars are good swimmers, whereas leopards prefer to stay out of the water
- Leopards will flee a larger threat, whereas a jaguar is more likely to stand their ground
- Leopards are both arboreal and terrestrial, while jaguars are predominantly terrestrial
Both leopards and jaguars are large apex predators, well equipped to fight and defend themselves. However, while the jaguar has no real natural predators, the leopard does, and they face more threats from competing species, including other big cats.
Jaguars don’t really have any other large, predator species inhabiting the same range, that could outrun or bully them. They are bold and likely to face down and chase off a threat. Cubs are vulnerable to some animals that may look for an opportune moment to raid a den, but as adults there is little other than humans, that pose a predatory threat to jaguars.
Leopards on the other hand, share territory with many other large predatory species. In both Africa and Asia, their range can overlap with that of lions, tigers, cheetahs, hyenas and wolves. Many of these animals are also considered alpha predators and they are major competitors for food. Some are known to steal the kill of a leopard, and with their pack to chase them away. A leopard is much more likely to flee to the trees in the face of a bigger threat, than to hold its ground.
Leopard cubs are also vulnerable to predation from these other large predators, which is one of the main reasons, along with starvation, for their high rates of early mortality.
Leopard Vs Jaguar – Lifespan
Leopard cubs have a survival rate of only 41% to 50%. Cubs are completely weaned by 3 months old and independent at just under 20 months old. Those lucky enough to make it to adulthood reach sexual maturity at around 30 months (2.5 years) and can live to around 10-12 years on average.
Jjaguar cubs are also weaned at 3 months but remain in the birth den for 6 months before leaving to accompany their mother on hunts. They will continue in their mothers company for one to two years before leaving to establish a territory for themselves. Typical life span of the jaguar in the wild is estimated at around 12 – 15 years. In captivity, the jaguar lives up to 23 years, placing it among the longest living cats.
So jaguars may take longer to leave home and mature than a leopard, but they tend to live longer on average too.
Leopard Vs Jaguar – Threats & Conservation
Although African leopards are stable across most of their range, leopards are considered locally extinct in many countries they used to inhabit. Records suggest that the leopard occurs in only 25% of its historical global range. Five of the nine subspecies of these wild cats are listed as endangered or critically endangered, and the leopard species as a whole is listed as ‘Vulnerable‘ on the IUCN Red List. This is largely down to habitat loss, fragmentation of population groups and illegal hunting.
A 2014 survey indicated that there are around 12,000 to 14,000 leopards existing in the wild today. Of those that live in Africa, most of them reside outside of the national parks and reserves that have been set up to protect the species.
Jaguars in South America fair a little bit better than their leopard cousins, but their population is still threatened and in decline due to loss of habitat and over-hunting by man. While not critical or endangered, the Jaguar is listed as ‘Near Threatened‘ on the IUCN Red List.
Hunting of jaguars is restricted to ‘problem animals’ in Brazil, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico and Peru, while trophy hunting is still permitted in Bolivia. The species has no legal protection in Ecuador or Guyana. In the remainder of South America, and in the USA, hunting of jaguars is prohibited.
Current conservation efforts often focus on educating ranch owners and promoting ecotourism.