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Panthera onca (Linnaeus, 1758)

Jaguar (EN) | Jaguar (NL) | Penitigri (SR)
Conservation status: Near Threatened
Adult size: 56 - 96 kg
Diet: Carnivore
Activity: Cathemeral
Lifestyle: Terrestrial

Don't kill the Caterpillars, then complain there are no Butterlflies ~ John Marsden

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About

The jaguar (Panthera onca) is a large feline species native to the Americas, known for its powerful build and distinctive golden-yellow coat covered in black rosettes and spots. Jaguars are skilled predators and can adapt to various ecosystems. Unfortunately, jaguar populations are threatened by habitat loss, poaching, and conflicts with humans, leading to conservation concerns for this iconic big cat species.
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Animalia
Chordata
Mammalia
Carnivora
Feliformia
Felidae
Pantherinae
Panthera
P. onca

Size and Appearance:

The jaguar, the largest cat native to the Americas, exhibits a compact and muscular build, standing 57 to 81 cm tall at the shoulders. Size and weight vary by sex and region, ranging from 56 to 96 kg. It is sexually dimorphic, with females typically 10–20% smaller. The coat varies from pale yellow to reddish-yellow, adorned with black spots forming rosettes, providing camouflage in dense vegetation.

Jaguars closely resemble leopards but are more robust, with stockier limbs and a more square head. Possessing powerful jaws, they rank third in bite force among felids, after the tiger and lion. Melanistic jaguars, known as black panthers, exist, with a base coat color of black and documented occurrences in Central and South America. Jaguars are adept swimmers, exhibit solitary behavior, and are most active during dawn and dusk, resting in shade or near water. They play a crucial role as keystone species in ecosystems.

Habitat and Distribution:

The jaguar (Panthera onca) exhibits a large distribution spanning from southern Arizona and New Mexico to northern Argentina and northeastern Brazil. Their range covers approximately 8.75 million square kilometers, representing 46% of their historical distribution. Jaguars primarily inhabit dense tropical moist lowland forests but can also be found in scrublands, reed thickets, and coastal forests. They show a preference for habitats near water, such as rivers, lagoons, and swamps, showcasing their excellent swimming abilities.

Historically, the jaguar's range was estimated at 19 million km2, but by the 21st century, it had decreased to 8.75 million km2, with declines in the southern United States, northern Mexico, northern Brazil, and southern Argentina. The species is considered locally extinct in El Salvador and Uruguay. Jaguars have been occasionally sighted in the southwestern United States. Essential for maintaining ecosystems, jaguars play a crucial role as a keystone species. Habitat characteristics vital for their populations include water supply, dense cover, and sufficient prey.
Jaguars are apex predators and keystone species for healthy ecosystems.

Diet:

Jaguars are opportunistic hunters with a diet comprising over 85 prey species, including mammals, reptiles, and birds, across their extensive geographic range. They display a preference for large-sized ungulates when available, contributing to up to 50% of their kills, sustaining them for up to 4 days. However, their diet is highly variable, influenced by factors like prey availability and ease of capture. Jaguars have been observed preying on a diverse range of species, from capybaras and giant anteaters to marsh deer and southern tamanduas. They also opportunistically consume reptiles like turtles and caimans, with some populations in the Brazilian Pantanal primarily relying on aquatic reptiles and fish. 

In areas with reduced wild prey, jaguars may resort to preying on livestock. The jaguar's powerful bite allows it to pierce through the shells of armored prey, and it employs a distinctive killing method, delivering a fatal bite directly through the skull between the ears. The species is known for its stalk-and-ambush hunting strategy, showcasing remarkable adaptability and versatility in its diet and hunting techniques.

Reproduction and Reproductive Behavior:

Jaguars are generally solitary, with occasional group sightings involving a male, female, and cubs or coalitions of males. Territory marking is done through scrape marks, urine, and feces, and home ranges vary based on factors like deforestation and human population density. Vocalizations, including roars, grunts, and chuffing, serve communication purposes, with distinctive calls during estrus. 

Reproduction starts at sexual maturity around 2.5 years for females and 3-4 years for males. Estrus lasts 7-15 days, with a gestation period of 91-111 days. Breeding pairs may stay together for up to five days, and females give birth to one to two cubs. Cubs are born with closed eyes, open them after two weeks, and remain in the birth den for six months. Jaguars stay with their mothers for up to two years. Reproductive ecology studies are limited, but jaguars exhibit polygynandrous mating, with estrus cycles lasting 37 days and a preference for breeding during the wet season. 

Threats and conservation

The jaguar is classified as Near Threatened by the IUCN Red List. It's crucial to note that its conservation status differs across various biomes. For example, the jaguar is categorized as "Critically Endangered" (CR) in the Atlantic Forest and Caatinga, labeled as "Endangered" (EN) in the Cerrado, and holds a "Vulnerable" (VU) status in the Pantanal and Amazon regions.

The jaguar faces numerous threats across its range, primarily driven by habitat loss, fragmentation, and human-wildlife conflict. Deforestation, largely due to industrial agriculture, is a significant driver of habitat loss in Latin America, where jaguars are losing their natural habitats at an alarming rate. Fragmentation of habitats not only reduces suitable living spaces for jaguars but also isolates populations, leading to reduced genetic diversity and increased vulnerability to local extinctions. Human activities such as poaching for trophies and illegal trade in body parts exacerbate these threats, further decimating jaguar populations. Additionally, retaliatory killings associated with livestock depredation contribute to the decline of jaguars in certain regions, where conflicts between humans and jaguars are prevalent.

Despite conservation efforts and protective measures, jaguars continue to face perilous conditions, with their range declining significantly over the past century. Urgent action is needed to address these threats and protect jaguars and their habitats from further degradation and extinction. Collaboration between governments, NGOs, local communities, and private landowners is essential to implement effective conservation strategies and ensure the long-term survival of this iconic species.

Conservation efforts are multifaceted, aiming not only to protect jaguars directly but also to address underlying drivers of their decline.  Education and awareness initiatives are crucial for fostering coexistence between humans and jaguars, encouraging tolerance and understanding of their ecological importance. Additionally, research on jaguar behavior, ecology, and population dynamics informs conservation strategies and helps monitor the effectiveness of interventions over time.

Jaguar poaching

The illegal trafficking of jaguar parts poses a significant threat to jaguar populations in Latin America, driven by demand primarily from Asian markets. Despite protective measures such as CITES regulations, poaching of jaguars persists, contributing to population declines. In Suriname, experts have identified sophisticated criminal networks involved in jaguar trafficking, with Chinese citizens playing a prominent role as international traffickers. These networks operate across borders and collaborate through various channels, exploiting gaps in enforcement and transportation systems. 

Illegal mining activities are also linked to jaguar poaching, as miners are recruited to kill jaguars in areas close to mining sites, further exacerbating the threat to these big cats. Protected areas, such as Brownsberg Nature Park, are particularly vulnerable to poaching as it is easily accessible and a lot of illegal mining activity persists. The demand for jaguar paste in traditional Chinese medicine fuels the poaching trade, despite lacking scientific evidence of its purported health benefits. The ease of access to illegal jaguar products online further exacerbates the issue, with little response from law enforcement.  Urgent action is needed to address the complex dynamics of jaguar trafficking and protect these iconic species from further exploitation and decline.

Ecosystem role:

The jaguar plays a crucial ecological role as an apex predator and a keystone species, exerting control over prey populations and contributing to the structural integrity of forest ecosystems. Its impact on prey populations, including herbivorous and seed-eating mammals, is significant. 

Jaguars coexist with other predators like cougars, sharing habitats and prey resources. In South America, jaguars tend to take larger prey compared to cougars, which may give cougars an advantage in human-altered landscapes due to their ability to prey on smaller animals.  

Cultural Significance:

The jaguar holds significant cultural and mythological importance even in pre-Columbian Americas, symbolizing power and strength. In the Andes, the Chavín and Moche cultures revered the jaguar, with the latter depicting it as a symbol of power in ceramics. Among the Muisca people, the jaguar was considered sacred, and individuals adorned jaguar skins during religious ceremonies. The Maya civilization believed jaguars facilitated communication between the living and the dead, considering them spiritual companions. The Aztecs, influenced by the Maya, revered the jaguar as a totem animal for powerful deities, and their elite warrior class was known as the Jaguar warriors.

Artifacts like Olmec were-jaguar sculptures in the Yucatán Peninsula and Tabasco showcase the jaguar's symbolic presence, featuring stylized depictions with half-human faces. The jaguar's cultural significance extends to contemporary times, being the national animal of Guyana and featured in its coat of arms. The pervasive presence of jaguar imagery in diverse ancient cultures highlights its enduring emblematic role in shaping beliefs, rituals, and societal structures.

Economically, jaguars contribute positively to ecotourism income in local communities where they can be observed, highlighting their importance beyond ecological dynamics.

Recent studies:

In 2023, an updated estimate of extant jaguar range for South America came up with a decrease of 14% compared to a 2015 estimate. This difference is a combination of using more data, better methods, and the continuing loss of jaguar habitat. The Guiana Shield seems to be one of the best strongholds for the jaguar due to the high forest cover as suitable habitat. A report in 2023 documents the commercial sale of jaguar parts to and from the Mocovi prison in Bolivia. A 2024 study shows that large trees with wide crowns facilitate coexistence between jaguars and ocelots, as ocelots can use these arboreal spaces to minimize confrontation.
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