What's the Difference Between a Jaguar and a Leopard?


Is that dangerously adorable big cat a leopard or a jaguar? (Hint: check out its spots.)

They're both spotted, toothy, whiskered, and huge. How can you tell jaguars and leopards apart? Plenty of differences can tip you off, including anatomy, behavior, and geographic ranges.

Let’s start with their gorgeous fur. Both felines are covered with large, flower-shaped blotches called rosettes. In jaguars like the one pictured below, these rosettes frequently contain little black spots. Leopard rosettes don't. Also, jaguar rosettes tend to be larger.

The head’s another dead giveaway: a jaguar’s noggin is markedly bigger and broader. That’s because these particular cats, which have the jaws of any feline, have an especially brutal method of killing prey. They drive their tough canines straight through skull bones and into brains. Ouch! Leopards, meanwhile, favor finesse, and prefer suffocating their prey with a well-placed bite to the throat.

If a leopard and jaguar stood side by side, you’d notice certain key differences in overall body type as well. By comparison, leopards are much slimmer creatures with longer limbs and tails. Whereas jag chests are barrel-shaped, leopard torsos look rather sleek. Just feast your eyes on this one:

Lightly built leopards are far better at climbing trees—though jaguars still do so anyway. On the other hand, whereas jags live around rivers and swim a lot, savannah-dwelling leopards will go out of their way to avoid any unnecessary contact with water.

Speaking of habitats, we haven’t touched on geography yet. Wild jaguars can be found from northeastern Argentina all the way up to Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas (however, U.S. sightings are rare). Leopards are strictly old world felines that roam huge swaths of Africa and Asia.

So what’s the deal with panthers? Are they members of team jaguar or team leopard? Both. The word “panther” is nothing more than an umbrella term that simply means “big cat.” At the end of the day, leopards, jaguars, and cougars are all called “panthers” on occasion.

That's why any jaguar or leopard with an especially dark coat gets billed as a “black panther.” The fur of these gorgeous animals contains unusually high levels of the pigment melanin, which gives them a charcoal hue that almost completely obscures their rosettes.  

And as for that dangerously adorable cat in the top image? It's a leopard.

All images courtesy of iStock