Of all the world's big cats, the two most often confused are Panthera onca and Panthera pardus: the Jaguar and the Leopard, respectively. At first glance, they do indeed have a similar appearance, but they are in fact quite different – both physically and in behaviour. There would never be any chance of confusing the two big cats while Leopard or Jaguar watching in the wild, as they exist in entirely different parts of the world (Panthera pardus in Asia and Africa and Panthera onca in the Americas), but understanding their differences can offer some important insight.
Size and Body Structure
With males reaching up to 120kg, Panthera onca is the third-largest of the four big cats (and the largest in the Americas) after the Tiger and the Lion, with Panthera pardus coming in as the smallest (males reach up to 80kg). Their body structure is also markedly different, with the more muscular and stocky Jaguar also having a wider head, a more ‘barrel'-shaped torso and a shorter tail.
Colour and Fur Pattern
While both big cats have distinctive ‘spotted’ coats and can be either yellow or black (which is known as melanistic), the rosette markings are not the same. The Jaguar's rosettes are usually slightly larger and also feature spots inside the outer ring of the rosette, while the Leopards are plain with no centre.
The Head and Jaws
The size and shape of the head is probably the most obvious difference between the two big cats. Panthera onca's head is much broader and it has a wider jaw – with the most powerful bite of all mammals and the fourth-strongest in the animal kingdom. It is the only big cat to be able to kill its prey with a single piercing bite to the skull, but it is also capable of breaking the neck and severing the spinal column in one lethal crunch.
Behaviour and Lifestyle
On most Jaguar watching tours, participants will have the opportunity to observe the big cat not only prowling on the jungle trails, but also enjoying lengthy periods of time in the water. Living in a wetland habitat means interaction with water is inevitable and they are strong and capable swimmers – even able to successfully bring down prey in rivers and waterholes. Leopards, on the other hand, abhor water and will do everything in their power to avoid it.
Leopards are more reticent to challenge a bigger or more aggressive animal, whereas the fearless Panthera onca will not only stand their ground, they often instigate an attack on a larger animal. But when it comes to establishing and defending a territory, the Leopard is far more aggressive and definitive, actively patrolling their chosen area, which for males is usually around 40km2. Jaguars are more relaxed and less likely to challenge other males of the species. They are often happy to allow their large home ranges to overlap (which can measure up to 170km2), although they usually have a small core area that they defend as their own.
For those who want to learn more about one of the world's fascinating big cats, Jaguar watching in the Brazilian Pantanal is both rewarding and memorable. The opportunity to encounter this extraordinary animal in its natural habitat is a true privilege and an unforgettable once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in Jaguar watching in the Brazilian Pantanal region. Being passionate about her subject, Marissa chooses the expert-led wildlife holidays organised by Naturetrek, which have brought her unforgettable sightings of a wide range of wildlife in some of the most spectacular regions on Earth.