Caturday felid– No. 1, the jaguar

November 13, 2010 • 8:34 am

by Greg Mayer

Jerry recently posted about a new analysis of cat coat color patterns by William Allen and colleagues from the University of Bristol that is in press in The Proceedings of the Royal Society B, so I thought it might be interesting to take a look at one of the species in the analysis, that I was able to photograph recently: the jaguar, Panthera onca.

It kind of looks like he’s about to spring and make a meal of me, but I didn’t take the picture in a tropical American forest, but at the Milwaukee County Zoo. Jaguars are of course spotted cats, with dark rosettes on a lighter background. Leopards (Panthera pardus), found in Africa and Asia, are rather similar, but jaguars have a dot in the middle of many of the rosettes. Jaguars also have a relatively larger head and more muscular forequarters, which are also noticeable in the next picture.As Jerry noted in his post, Allen and colleagues found that spotted patterns were significantly associated with closed or forested habitats. The jaguar is a bit of a problem in this regard, as it is a habitat generalist, found in the semi-desert of the southwestern US and northern Mexico, as well as in Neotropical rainforests. The authors attempted to account for varying degrees of habitat usage and specialization, although they did apparently miss the jaguar’s occurrence in semi-desert.

19 thoughts on “Caturday felid– No. 1, the jaguar

  1. I didn’t know Jaguars’ range included the US. How much overlap is there with Mountain Lions? I’d think twice about going for a walk if you’ve got Jaguars, Mountain Lions, Coyotes, Wolves? and whatever else out looking for a meal. Glad I’m here in Australia where we only have to worry about snakes and spiders in the bush, none of which fancy humans for a meal. Well, there dingoes and feral dogs. I’m suffering apex predator envy!

    1. They ranged into the US on both sides of the Mexican plateau (i.e. Texas in the east, and California/Arizona in the west). The US populations are much depleted, and perhaps reduced to wandering individuals (not reproducing populations). In the Pleistocene they ranged considerably further north. Jaguars overlap with mountain lions almost completely (i.e. almost everywhere there are jaguars there are also mountain lions; the latter also occur north of jaguars, through much of the US and Canada). Go to Virginia Hayssen’s Mammalian Species site (mountain lions are account 200, jaguars account 340) for more details. Mountain lions have recovered since the 1983 Mammalian Species account was published, and now occur, for example in my state of Wisconsin, although it’s not entirely clear if they are wanderers from north and west, or a reestablished population.


      1. That’s so cool. I like the idea of big cats (or predators) roaming around. Oh for a few thylacaleos or even thylacaines. Thanks for the link and info.

      2. So, the Mountain Lion is a feline that is bigger (marginally) than the Jaguar which is a panther? That’s something I wouldn’t have expected. My kitties have something to aim for. 🙂

        Did the Jaguar evolve on another continent? Most of the members of the panther genus seem to be in Africa and Asia, which are nowdays joined making dispersal simple. I’m guessing Jaguar anscestors crossed the land bridge that would have been in the bearing sea in an ice Age or that one of the American continents formed part of a super-continent at some stage and the anscestral species range included part of one or both the American continents. Though the later seems unlikely as the time scales required would have lead to a greater evolutionary change and different genus.

      3. Once again that Mexican border fence will damage wildlife by hindering populations of jaguars crossing north & south.

    2. Expanding on Jerry’s reply a bit…there are a few (as in, “low single digits”) jaguars whose territory includes southern Arizona. Whether or not any happen to be here as I type is an open question.

      If you’re camping, you’re not going to see any large predators. You might if you’re hunting (and both stalking the same elk).

      You’re pretty much guaranteed to not see any jaguars; even the researchers whose jobs it is to track them can’t find them.

      There are still cougars, but I don’t think ranchers worry any more about them taking livestock.

      There are still bobcats, but they’re even more wary of humans than feral housecats.

      A small colony of Mexican Wolves was recently reintroduced into the Apache-Sitgraves National Forest; until their release, they were extinct in the wild. The Phoenix Zoo has some on exhibit and as part of the captive breeding program.

      In rural areas (and urban areas bordering rural areas), coyotes are a threat to small pets and garbage cans. Then again, Harris’s Hawks are to the former and crows are to the latter; I’ve seen hawks once or twice in my neighborhood, and there’s a gorgeous pair of crows who’ve recently taken up residence somewhere near here.

      Far and away, your biggest danger in the Arizona desert is yourself. People who get in trouble out here almost always do so by not bringing enough water, by getting lost, or by injuring themselves. Most of the few remaining injuries are from rattlesnake bites — and almost all of those are alcohol-related. (“Hey, Bubba! Look, a rattler! Hold my beer while I go grab it.”) Scorpions are a minor concern. Their sting is a bit worse than a wasp sting, but they’re not aggressive; the biggest danger is from young children playing with them, followed by doing yard work in areas known to have populations without wearing shoes and gloves. Africanized honeybees have made it this far north and are more of a problem than scorpions…which is to say, they might make the news once every couple years for swarming into somebody’s back yard.

      If it’s apex predators you’re worried about, with one exception, the Arizona desert is about the safest undeveloped place you’re going to find. That exception, of course, is a certain primate….



      1. Good advice on desert camping, but do note: the post AND the reply was by Greg, not me. When Greg writes a post (as he did this one), he also answers questions. (I may do it occasionally, but I’ll identify myself.)

      2. Do humans qualify as apex predators? I thought apex predators were at the top of the food chain, whereas humans get munched sometimes by lions and other big predators, at least some of the time.

        1. Even an apex predator is itself subject to predation; it’s just vanishingly rare for a healthy adult to have to defend itself from hungry competition.

          Ever since the invention of the spear, and certainly with the discovery of pit traps, arrows, and other perennial favorites like the MIRV SLBM, there hasn’t been an animal on earth that a healthy adult Homo sapiens sapiens can’t kill or defend itself against. Put a flamethrower in a child’s hands and even a T. rex (if somebody were to pull a Jurassic Park) would change its dinner reservations.

          Our species today is far more concerned men eating tigers than man-eating tigers. Do you have any idea how many tigers are poached just so their penises can be made into Chinese aphrodisiacs?



      3. Ben,

        While they’re not exactly apex predators, don’t you also have peccaries/javalinas there, and can’t they be a bit testy at times?

  2. Maybe the Jaguar gets its spots by tattooing itself with cactus needles? That would explain the situation for those arid regions. That Jolla is nasty stuff, it just follows you around.

    1. I think you mean, “cholla,” not, “Jolla”; La Jolla is a wealthy suburb of San Diego.

      Contrary to its popular name, cholla spines don’t actually jump. Rather, they’re hair-trigger spring-loaded and they taper to an almost-invisible hair-thin point. They’re nasty, alright, but not a problem if you stay on the trail. And, considering how fragile many desert ecosystems are — it can take decades for vegetation in certain areas to recover from a human bootprint — you really should be staying on the trails.

      Be especially careful with dogs in the desert. They like to investigate things with their noses…and a face full of cholla is a life-threatening medical emergency requiring prompt surgery. You don’t need an airlift, but don’t stop for groceries on your way to the doctor. Keep the victim calm and don’t let anything (including hands and paws) get near the spines.

      Extracting spines from other parts of the body can be done with a pair of pliers, but don’t hesitate to have a medical professional do the job — especially if coverage is extensive. If you slide down a hillside and come out looking like a fuzzball — especially if it’s not just your clothes that are covered — plan on spending some very uncomfortable time in the waiting room of the ER before somebody gets around to helping you. Just hope that you don’t get any spines in your rear or else you’ll be standing the whole time….



  3. Australia had its own marsupial “lions” of course. A recent Scientific American article I think it was, talked about how important Colombia is for linking populations of jaguars. They are no longer split into lots of subspecies so ability of populations to mix will help prevent inbreeding.

  4. On the subject of jaguars…the Phoenix Zoo used to have a drop-dead gorgeous black jaguar, Missy.

    In the shade, her coat looked like an animated shadow, dark as midnight. But when she stepped into the sun, you could see that she also had deep, dark, rich brown jaguar markings.

    There’s a picture of here here:

    but it doesn’t do her justice.

    I got the impression that she was a personable cat, one who might actually tolerate or even like people. I got a similar impression from Camille, the Zoo’s elderly cougar. Most of the rest of the Zoo’s cats are either like the bobcats and more human-averse than feral housecats; or they’re like the tigers and cheetahs, that make eye contact and dismiss you as an obstacle to swat aside on their way out of prison. Then there’s the lions…playful, lazy cats who I’m sure would delight in a human-sized squeaky toy.

    I understand that a jaguar’s jaws are amongst the strongest of any species. They like to kill their prey by piercing the skull with their teeth. The rest of their arsenal is damned impressive, too.

    They’re also fond of the water and excellent swimmers; they even carry large kills across rivers. I know tigers like the water as well, but I think jaguars might like it even more.

    I’m hoping to live to see the day when they again have a viable presence in Arizona. Not that I’d ever expect to see one, but it’d be good to know that they’re out there.



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