Understanding Big Cats: The Jaguar's Favourite Habitats

Desiree Michels

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For many wildlife lovers, the most fascinating and compelling of all the world's animals are the largest members of the felidae family – aka the big cats. Coming under the term “big cat” are the Lion, Tiger, Leopard and Jaguar – the four “roaring" members of the Panthera genus. The term is also often used to describe the Cheetah, Snow Leopard and Puma.

While the largest and, some may argue, most impressive of the big cats is Panthera tigris (the Tiger) it is the elusive Panthera onca, the Jaguar, which holds the most fascination. The sleuthing skills of this magnificent apex predator are unmatched by any other species in the animal kingdom, and its enduringly secretive nature means there is still much researchers and scientists have to learn about it.

One thing we do know, however, is the kind of terrain it prefers to make its home. As the most adaptable of all the big cats, Panthera onca is able to survive and thrive in a diverse variety of habitats.

Jungles, Forests, Savannahs

Jaguars are most at home in a wet lowland habitat, including tropical rainforests and marshy savannahs. They like a soft base underfoot and often use dead leaves, rotted-out tree trunks or caves to create a den. They also range in more open deciduous forests, mountainous shrubby terrain and grasslands.

Not surprisingly, the area with the densest population of the species – the lush, bio-diverse wetland region of the Brazilian Pantanal – encompasses all of these terrains.

Desert Regions in the USA

While at one time Panthera onca roamed from the extreme southern reaches of South America, right up to the Grand Canyon in Arizona, and west to California, today it is virtually extinct in the USA. Only rare sightings are reported in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.

The USA/Mexico borderlands are extraordinarily bio-diverse, comprising of a mixture of terrain that includes river valleys, plateaus, forests, plains and deserts. It is believed that the pocket of around 80-120 big cats living in the remote mountainous area of Sonora (now protected as the Northern Jaguar Reserve) is the result of transient juvenile males roaming over the border from Mexico.

At Home In and Around Water

Unlike other big cats, Jaguars not only tolerate water, they positively enjoy it! In any of their preferred habitats they tend to live as close to water as possible, near rivers, seasonal waterholes or lakes. They are extremely strong swimmers and their powerful front legs and razor-sharp canine teeth enable them to tackle even the largest and toughest aquatic prey, including caimans and turtles. They also often appear to bathe or swim just for fun and will hunt for fish in small pools or streams, dipping their tail in the water to attract their prey.

An opportunistic apex predator, the Jaguar's adaptability and diverse diet of prey enable it to survive in a range of habitats. Unfortunately, however, this beautiful animal's main threat to survival comes not from environmental or predatory dangers, but from human encroachment.

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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.


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