A few different jaguars have found fame on YouTube over the last few years: In 2013, a National Geographic video of one of the cats taking down an unsuspecting crocodile went viral. And a year later, 4.5 million viewers watched some spectacular footage of one swimming like a champion. But these cats deserve more than just 15 seconds of fame. Here are 10 incredible facts about jaguars that might help you properly appreciate the next hit video.
1. ONLY ONE OR TWO WILD JAGUARS NOW LIVE IN THE UNITED STATES (AS FAR AS WE KNOW).
These big cats used to have an enormous geographic range, stretching from Argentina to the southwestern United States. In centuries gone by, jaguars were among the top predators in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and southern California. Overhunting, habitat loss, and armed livestock owners completely wiped out the local population in at least three of those states. In 2011, a male was photographed in the Santa Rita Mountains near Tucson, Arizona. Nicknamed El Jefe (Spanish for “the boss”), this cat quickly became a minor celebrity because at the time, no other wild jaguar specimens were known to reside anywhere in the U.S. Then, in 2016, a trail camera in Fort Huachua, Arizona took some snapshots of what looks like a different male. “We are examining photographic evidence to determine if we’re seeing a new cat here, or if this is an animal that has been seen in Arizona before,” Jim deVos, a member of the state’s Game and Fish department, told the press. While there's not yet an official verdict on whether it's El Jefe or there's a new cat in town, you can compare these photos and draw your own conclusions.
2. JAGUARS HAVE DISPROPORTIONATELY STRONG BITES.
"Pound for pound, jaguars pack a stronger punch” than a lion or tiger, says biologist Adam Hardstone-Rose. Back in 2012, Hardstone-Rose co-authored a study that compared the standard bite forces of nine cat species. The data showed that, in terms of sheer power, jaguars can’t compete with tigers, who exert 25 percent more force when chomping down. But proportionately speaking, the smaller felines wield the most powerful bite of any big cat. “The strength of [its] jaw muscles, relative to weight, are slightly stronger than those of other cats. In addition—also relative to weight—its jaws are slightly shorter, which increases the leverage for biting,” Hardstone-Rose explains.
3. THIS MAKES THEM BRUTALLY EFFECTIVE KILLING MACHINES.
Jaguars aren’t finicky. They’ll eat just about any animal they can overpower. Fish, birds, deer, armadillos, peccaries, porcupines, tapirs, capybaras, anacondas, caimans, and nesting sea turtles are just a few of the jaguar’s dinner options. Armadillos, caimans, and sea turtles are all heavily armored creatures whose hides are tough enough to repel most would-be predators, but jaguars aren't daunted: They know where to bite down. Some big cats, like lions, tend to kill by suffocation, biting the windpipe area of the victim’s neck until it asphyxiates. Jaguars take a different approach. When one of these spotted felines goes in for the kill, it generally delivers a swift, powerful bite to the back of target’s head right where the skull meets the spinal cord. With crushing force, the jaguar’s teeth are driven into the neck vertebrae. If all goes well, the bite will efficiently incapacitate the prey animal.
4. JAGUARS WILL TAKE ON BEARS.
To quote Sir David Attenborough, the jaguar is “a killer of killers,” hunting some pretty dangerous game. Consider El Jefe, who has eaten at least one bear. Last year, wildlife biologist Chris Bugbee was leading Mayke, his jaguar-tracking dog, through the famous cat’s territory when they came upon the stripped remains of a young adult black bear. The back of the animal’s skull had been crushed, and some suspicious toothmarks were present. Bugbee also found jaguar scat at the scene. An analysis of the fecal matter revealed strands of black bear hair. According to biologist Alertis Neils—who is also Bugbee’s wife—this is probably the first recorded instance of a jaguar killing a black bear. The ranges of these two species don’t overlap to a great extent, as the former is seldom seen in the U.S. while the latter is considered endangered in Mexico [PDF]. Regarding El Jefe’s bear hunt, Neils said, “It was north against south, and south won.”
5. THEY’RE ALSO GREAT SWIMMERS.
All felines can swim, but many would prefer to stay high and dry. Jaguars, in contrast, voluntarily enter rivers and streams so often that they’re considered the most aquatic of the big cats. The cats have been known to pursue fish and caimans underwater. On hot days, they can even be found wallowing in bodies of water to cool off. Well-suited for endurance swims, the felines have been seen traversing rivers that are a mile wide or more. Don’t believe us? Watch this.
6. “BLACK PANTHERS” ARE ACTUALLY LEOPARDS AND JAGUARS.
Most people assume that the black panther is a distinct species of feline. But the “black panther” is really an umbrella term that applies to individual leopards or jaguars who have a condition known as melanism. Melanistic animals are born with an unusually large amount of dark-colored pigment in their skin, scales, feathers, or fur. This can give them a striking, jet black look from head to toe. Jaguars and leopards with melanism—so-called black panthers—are so dark that, in many cases, you can barely see their spots. At the other end of the spectrum are albino jaguars, which are a good deal rarer than melanistic ones. Nonetheless, a few have been sighted in Paraguay.
7. PREHISTORIC JAGUARS WERE BIGGER THAN MODERN ONES.
The fossil record tells us that jaguars first evolved in Eurasia, where the species—whose scientific name is Panthera onca—has long since gone extinct. The cats then crossed the Bering land bridge and entered the Americas around 1.5 million years ago. The average jaguar was a lot larger in those days, with a wide range. Fossilized jaguar bones have been found in Florida, Maryland, Nebraska, Tennessee, and Washington. From this fossil record, scientists have deduced that prehistoric P. onca were 15 to 20 percent bigger than the animals alive today.
The decrease in body size might have helped jaguars survive the last ice age. For predators back then, the competition was fierce. While prehistoric jaguars were impressively large, they still would’ve been dwarfed by the saber-toothed cat Smilodon fatalis and by another massive feline called the American lion. Both were big-game hunters. So to avoid directly competing with either species, jaguars probably started pursuing smaller animals like peccaries. Some paleontologists suspect that, over time, this trend would’ve forced the jags themselves to get smaller. In the end, the shrinkage paid off: Most of the mega-mammals on which Smilodon and the American lion depended gradually died out. But the jaguars’ relatively diminutive prey animals are still around today. Size matters in nature—but bigger isn’t always better.
8. GUYANA’S COAT OF ARMS INCLUDES TWO JAGUARS.
The South American republic adopted its current coat of arms (pictured above) on February 25, 1966. Since the jaguar is Guyana’s national animal, it’s fitting that two of them appear in the design. As you can see, the cats come with props. The one on the left is grasping a pick axe, which represents the country’s mining industry. Meanwhile, on the right, we see a cat that’s grasping a sugar cane and a stalk of rice. These symbolize the historic importance of both crops—plus those who farm them—in Guyana.
9. THE JAGUAR IS THE ONLY NATIVE NORTH AMERICAN FELINE THAT ROARS.
This species belongs to the same genus, Panthera, that includes the lion, tiger, leopard, and snow leopard. With the exception of the snow leopard, all of those cats emit deep roars—and so, too, does the jaguar. The same cannot be said of the other felines that roam North America. Mountain lions, bobcats, lynx, ocelots, jaguarundis, and margays emit all kinds of sounds (ranging from low hisses to horrific shrieks), but none are considered genuine roars. On the flip side, those Panthera cats cannot purr, which is something that many of their smaller relatives—including the tabby who lives in your house—do with gusto. Life is full of tradeoffs.
10. A NEWBORN CUB WAS NAMED AFTER THE OWNER OF THE NFL'S JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS.
No wild jaguar has set foot in Florida since prehistoric times. But the Jacksonville Zoo and Garden does have an award-winning jaguar display, and it was the first American zoo to ever breed these near-threatened felines on a regular basis. On July 18, 2013, the 50th cub was born at the zoo—the same birthday as the owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Shahid Khan. So, when a contest was held to determine what the kitten's name would be, the public chose Khan. In July 2016, Jaguars wide receiver Arrelious Benn and safety Jarrod Wilson dropped by the zoo to help the cat celebrate his third birthday.