At first glance, it’s easy to confuse a jaguar and leopard! So let’s take a look at their differences!
Jaguars and leopards both have spotted coats, so unless you look closely, it can be difficult to distinguish the two from each other. So how do the coats differ? Jaguar rosettes (the name for the spots) tend to be larger and have a spot in the middle, while leopard rosettes are plain, with no spot in the middle. See below, where the jaguar sits among the golden leaves on the left and the leopard lounges on the branch on the right. Easy enough, right?
Now, let’s learn a bit more about these cats and their habits!
Jaguars are found in the Americas, although the United States population is largely extinct. Leopards live in China and India, to the Middle East and down into Africa. Jaguars are considered a “New World Cat” while leopards are considered an “Old World Cat”.
Jaguars are bigger than leopards. In terms of size, tigers reign supreme, followed by lions, then jaguars, then leopards. Jaguars tend to have a shorter and stockier build, while leopards are longer and leaner. Leopards have longer tails than jaguars and since leopards climb trees a lot, this makes sense. While jaguars do climb trees, they are not as agile in trees as leopards. The long tails help leopards achieve balance while climbing. It’s interesting to look at tail length and what this indicates: leopards often will hoist their kills into trees to protect them from others animals, such as lions and hyenas, while jaguars essentially are the apex predators of the Americas and don’t need to hoist their prey into trees for protection. Thus, the long tail is essential to leopards.
Interestingly, even though the jaguar is only the third largest cat, it has the most powerful bite of all big cats. In fact, it has the most forceful bite of any mammal, beating out hippos and gorillas! Only crocodiles and alligators have a stronger bite than the jaguar. Because they have such a strong bite, jaguars often kill their prey by using their canines to pierce their prey’s skull. Jaguars are the only big cat to use this method, most likely because of its super strong bite. Otherwise, jaguars will severe the backbone with a powerful bite and break its prey’s neck. Leopards use a suffocating bite, often biting at the neck or mouth. Both cats prefer to ambush, rather than chase prey and both cats have a varied diet. Leopards will usually hide their kills, while jaguars do not (again, this is indicative of the competition each cat faces).
Leopards do not like water! Like the tiger, jaguars seem content to lounge in water but leopards will do everything they can to avoid it! Because jaguars live in the wetlands, they really don’t have a choice but to like water.
The jaguar tends to “grow up” more quickly than the leopard, with young jaguars leaving their mothers at an earlier age than leopards. Both cats are solitary, meaning they live and hunt alone.
Leopards are very territorial and will patrol and fight for their land. They don’t like other leopards moving into their area. Jaguars, on the other hand, are more relaxed when it comes to their territory. They do not show aggression when other male jaguars move into their territory and often jaguars will overlap territories. Because the leopard is so territorial, it often works with a smaller territory, while the jaguar roams a much broader area.
Hopefully you learned some interesting facts about these two cats. Next time you visit a zoo, try not to look at the signs and see if you can determine which cat is which!