What is the difference between a jaguar and a leopard?
As guides we often get asked what the difference is between a leopard and a jaguar. At first glance one could easily make the mistake of confusing the two, so I’ve decided to put together a comparison for you. This comparison goes beyond the looks, diving more deeply into the design, make up and behaviour of these magnificent predators with images to help illustrate the points.
The jaguar is found in the Americas. Historically they occurred as far north as California, however the United States population is largely extinct. It extends south through Central America and into Argentina and is known as a New World Cat.
Leopard populations are found from China and India to the Middle East and down into Africa. It is referred to as an Old World Cat.
Female Leopard: 20 – 60 kg
Female Jaguar: 85 – 90 kg
Male Leopard: 40 – 80kg
Male Jaguar: 110 -120 kg
Take a look at this video which showcases the various sizes of leopards found at Londolozi Game Reserve, bordering the Kruger National Park in South Africa:
The jaguar is the 3rd largest cat in the world.
Jaguars tend to have larger rosettes with spots in the middle; the leopard has plain rosettes with no central spot in the middle.
Jaguars, in the Pantanal at least, go independent at a very young age. From data collected at Projeto Onçafari, they believe that female jaguars leave their mother at around 14-15 months. A female leopard may reach anything between 18-24 months before leaving it mother. A male jaguar starts to show signs of heading off around 18 – 20 months and its leopard counterpart may think about it closer to 24 months. The jaguar thus ‘grows up’ very quickly.
With jaguars sexual maturity occurs in females around two to three years; males mature between three and four years. Leopards develop slightly later than this. Most female leopards fall pregnant for the first time at around three and a half years.
The Mashaba female is currently Londolozi’s best known leopard. Her relaxed nature means she is comfortable around the camps and vehicles.
Follow the link above to see one of the currently most successful mother leopards on Londolozi.
Leopards: 12- 15 in the wild, although there are a number of cases of females reaching over 17.
Jaguars: uncertain in the wild, but thought to be around 13- 15
The jaguar steals the show here. Pound for pound this cat is phenomenally strong. With the ability to deliver up to 2000 pounds of force, this makes jaguars the most powerful of the great cats – even more so than lions and tigers.
List of the top 10 most powerful bites in the animal kingdom:
8. spotted hyena
7. grizzly bear
4. jaguar (most powerful mammal)
3. american alligator
2. saltwater crocodile
1. nile crocodile
The shape and size of the head is very different between the two cats. Due to the different styles of killing (see below) the jaguar has a much broader forehead and wider jaw.
Jaguars have a large barrel like abdomen. It almost always looks as if they are pregnant or well fed. Leopards, on the other hand, often have a very slight build. Jaguars also have a shorter, stockier build than leopards.
Most people also believe that jaguars do not really climb trees. They are cats and thus more than capable of doing so but most of the literature suggests that they only climb trees when under pressure and when they were confronted by people or dogs. However at Projeto Onçafari they have been able to observe jaguars in a number of trees and have thus debunked this myth. The researchers have camera traps positioned in various trees and have been able to locate at least ten trees in the research area, of various species, that show clear evidence of tree climbing.
Jaguars are not as agile in trees as leopards and they certainly do not spend as much time in the trees, but they are fully capable of doing so. From a design point of view it is interesting to look at the tail length. The leopard is very arboreal and has a long tail to aid in balance. The jaguar has a much shorter tail, an indicator that tree climbing is less important in its life. The reason: lack of predators. Leopards have to hoist their kills to avoid other predators such as lion, hyena and wild dog. Jaguars are the apex predator of the Americas and so have no reason to need to carry kills into trees. They simply outcompete everything else on the ground!
Leopards do not like water! They will do everything in their power to avoid having to go through it. Whereas the jaguar, like the tiger, seems to be content with spending lengthy periods of time in the water. Jaguars in the Pantanal do not have a choice as they live in a wetland. AtProjeto Onçafari they recently tracked a jaguar with her three month old cub and watched both her and the cub swim across 100m of open water.
This is one of the least known aspects of a jaguars lifestyle. There is quite a difference with regards to territory that we know of though. Leopards are very territorial and will actively patrol, demarcate and fight for land. They will not permit other leopards moving into their area. Jaguars are less territorial and utilize more of a relaxed ‘home-range’. There is large overlap between jaguar’s home ranges and these are not nearly as actively managed and patrolled. Recent studies from Brazil have shown male jaguars to not show strong aggression or territorial defence against other jaguars. A jaguar will have a ‘core’ area in which he/she may be the only cat, but this area is small relative to the land used by that individual.
In the Pantanal a male jaguar may use as much as 170km2 and a female closer on 70km2. Male leopards at Londolozi Game Reserve (Kruger National Park) could have a territory of roughly 40km2 and a female of approximately 15km2. Although there can be huge variation in these numbers, the averages serve the purpose of illustrating how Jaguars utilize an incredibly large area.
Follow the links below to our website dedicated to the Leopards of Londolozi. There you’ll be able to compare the territory sizes of the various leopards in the area.
The Nanga female was born to the Nyelethi 4:4 female in 2009 as part of a litter of three.
Directly descended from the original mother leopard and therefore part of the royal lineage of Londolozi.
Leopards kill using a suffocating bite. This bite will usually be around the throat, or may in fact be around the mouth. The jaguar prefers to use one of two methods: 1) killing by canines piercing through prey’s skull (only large cat to use this technique) and 2) By severing the spinal column/backbone with a powerful bite and breaking the neck. Both species of cat prefer to hunt by stalking and ambush rather then lengthy chases.
Leopards are the cat with the most varied diet. They eat just about anything. The current dietary list for a leopard sits at just under 100 species. Jaguars are not far behind on 85. Both these cats show signs that they are able to adapt to feeding on whatever is in the area. In the Pantanal, jaguars eat a large number of big animals like cattle. It is said that the jaguar is the only big cat, which shows a particular liking to reptiles (turtles, tortoises, caimans and snakes).
Both species show a tendency to move a kill once it has been made. However, due to the nature of the prey, a jaguar will usually drag its prize whilst walking backwards. A leopard, on the other hand, will pull it forwards. Jaguars do not attempt to hide their kills using leaves or sand, a practice often seen with leopards.
To learn more about any of the organisations involved in this project click on the links below:
If you are interested in finding out more about the individual free-ranging leopards which are seen at Londolozi Game Reserve, visit the website dedicated to the Leopards of Londolozi, which provides incredible photographs, stories and family trees of one of the first habituated leopard populations in the world.
Or download the Leopards of Londolozi interactive iBook, designed and available exclusively for your iPad. Simply click on the link and follow the instructions to do so: