The most adaptable of all the big cats is the Panthera onca, the Jaguar. Its preferred habitat is tropical and sub-tropical rainforests and grasslands, with the densest population surviving in the vast bio-diverse wetland environment of the Amazon Basin.
The Jaguar's Rainforest Biome
Hot and humid throughout the year, the Amazonian rainforest biome – which includes the Brazilian Pantanal (prime Jaguar habitat) – accounts for more than 50% of the earth's rainforests and at least 30% of its plant and animal species. The extremely fertile and oxygen-rich forests support an astounding array of bio-diversity. This is great news for the Jaguar, which enjoys a carnivorous diet of more than 85 known prey species.
Panthera onca's role as a keystone predator is vital to maintaining the balance of the eco-system. By keeping down the population of prey species, the big cat's symbiotic relationship with the rainforest ensures the continued abundance of the habitat.
Adaptations for Survival
Panthera onca has undergone a range of physical and behavioural adaptations to maintain its superiority in the food chain.
- It has developed very long, razor-sharp claws, which enable it to scale the smooth, moist bark of the jungle trees without the aid of lower branches.
- Its rear legs are longer than its front ones, which enables it to stalk its prey through the forest and ambush it in one powerful leap.
- It has an extremely powerful jaw and huge canine teeth, allowing it to kill large prey by crushing the skull.
- Unlike other big cats, it is a strong swimmer and can hunt on land and in water.
The Jaguar's Food Chain
In the Amazon rainforest biome, the Jaguar is what's known as a tertiary consumer, meaning it consumes prey species from both the second and third trophic levels, made up of primary and secondary consumers. The primary producers – plants, fungi and moss – make up the first trophic level.
In the jungle, the big cat's totally carnivorous diet consists of both large and small prey species, including tapirs, deer, peccaries, turtles, rodents, reptiles, fish and even a tough-skinned caiman or two. Nothing that moves is off limits and, although it prefers its own kills, the animal is not above feeding on abandoned carcasses it happens across in the jungle. Its preference to lead a secret and solitary existence extends to its hunting and eating habits, and it will often drag the carcass of a kill into deep cover before devouring it.
Threats to the Apex Predator
While it doesn't have to be concerned about being hunted by other animals, the Jaguar continues to be under threat from humans. Loss of habitat due to industry and agricultural development is one reason for this, but they are also frequently killed by ranchers protecting their livestock and poachers profiting from the illegal trading of their teeth, paws and fur for use in Asian medicines.
As one of the world's most beautiful and culturally revered animals, researchers, scientists and conservationists are working against the clock on global initiatives to ensure this magnificent big cat's survival.
Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in Jaguar watching. As a passionate lover of big cats Marissa chooses the expert-led itineraries organised by Naturetrek, which have brought her unforgettable sightings of a wide range of wildlife in some of the most spectacular regions on Earth.