Among big cats, jaguars, much larger than leopards, are exceeded in size only by lions and tigers. Males weigh from 125 to 250 pounds, are 6 to 9 feet long (including a tail up to 2.5 feet long), and stand twenty-four to thirty inches tall at the shoulder; females tend to be 20 percent smaller. Jaguar heads are massive and rounded; their bodies compact and heavily muscled. Individuals living in densely forested areas of theAmazon basin are significantly smaller than those inhabiting open terrain. Tawny or yellow, with black rings and spots, jaguar coats resemble those of the leopard; however, jaguar coat rosettes are larger and usually contain black spots in their centers. Examples of melanism occur in Amazon regions, where jaguars are often called black panthers.
Jaguar litters usually contain one to four cubs, which remain with their mother for eighteen months to two years while learning how to hunt. Other than during mating periods, adults live solitary lives, patrolling their own distinctly marked territories. Jaguar hunting ranges vary in size fromfive square miles, where prey is abundant, to two hundred square miles, where it is scarce. Male territories usually overlap the smaller ranges of several females. Jaguars are crepuscular hunters, preferring dim light in which to stalk and surprise victims by leaping on their backs. The name jaguar comes from the Guarani word yaguara, meaning "wild beast that can kill its prey in a single bound." Large eyes and sensitive vibrissae permit jaguars to maneuver in the dark. They are opportunistic hunters, taking armadillos, peccaries, deer, capybaras, anteaters, caimans, turtles, and fish. Jaguars possess the most powerful bite among big cats; large canine teeth easily crush skulls and penetrate armadillo armor or turtle shells. Sharp carnassial teeth and rasplike papillae soon clean their victims' bones.
Relations with Humans
Pre-Columbian Indian societies called the jaguar "Master of Animals", associating it with success in hunting and warfare, invoking it in religious rituals, and assigning it high social status. Jaguar thrones and jaguar skins were power symbols for rulers; hunters and warriors wore necklaces and bracelets of jaguar teeth or claws. Preferred foods of the elite were the meats that jaguars ate: venison, peccary, capybara, and armadillo. European settlers viewed jaguars as dangerous competitors to be hunted and killed. When Europeans arrived, sixteen subspecies of jaguars inhabited a continuous area stretching from the southwestern United States to Patagonia in Argentina. Before the end of the twentieth century, all subspecies of jaguar were endangered, their territories reduced to a series of disconnected areas lying between southern Mexico and northeast Argentina. In North and Central America, the jaguar lost 67 percent of its range, in South America about 38 percent. Most of the estimated fifteen thousand jaguars remaining exist in a few relatively undisturbed jungle regions of Central America and the Amazon basin. Hunting, destruction of habitat, and competition with ranchers and farmers all threaten the survival of the jaguar. In 1968, the United States imported 13,5l6 jaguar skins. The number of cats slain declined after the 1975 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species banned traffic in jaguar pelts. However, illegal trade continues; it is profitable because the beautiful skins are as greatly prized by today's high-status women as they were by Inca monarchs. Jaguars tend to avoid open areas such as pastures and villages, and rarely cross into fenced fields. However, when ranchers and farmers permit their animals to wander into jaguar hunting territory, they provide an easy meal. Such depredations, along with rare attacks on humans, create demands for the extirpation of the offenders. Continued destruction of habitat, as forests and jungles are leveled for timber or for farm and ranch land, is the greatest threat to jaguar survival. As remaining territory becomes ever more discontinuous, populations becomes less dense, and reproductive success becomes problematic. Whether jaguars can survive in wild, free-ranging populations, or will be found only in zoos and carefully protected national parks, remains an unanswered question.
Family: Felidae (cats)
Genus and species: Panthera onca
Geographical location: Originally ranged from the southwestern United States to southern Argentina
Habitat: Forests, jungles, and grassy plains Gestational period: About fourteen weeks
Life span: Ten to twelve years in the wild, over twenty years in captivity
Special anatomy: Large eyes with excellent night vision; jaws adapted to seizing and gripping prey, teeth designed for tearing and slicing flesh
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