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It is easy to understand why people get jaguars and leopards confused when trying to tell them apart. To the untrained eye, both species are big cats with spots, but there are real tell-tale signs that can be used to distinguish between the two species.
The Project Co-ordinator for Big Cats at FOUR PAWS, Britt Klaassen, says she personally tells the big cats apart by looking at their coat and size of their head. She explains a jaguar head is typically bigger and the animal is stockier, with broad shoulder muscles.
Leopards have longer, slender bodies as well as relatively small angular heads with sharp cheekbones.
It is also a tale of two tails when it comes to telling them apart. Leopards have longer tails than jaguars.
One of the other sure ways to spot differences is to observe the circle patterns or rosettes on their bodies. Both have rosette patterns but the way these present on their bodies is different.
“The basic colour of the coat of a jaguar varies from pale gold to a rust red and is covered with a series of round dark spots or rosettes with smaller dots within them.”
Britt Klaassen, Project Co-ordinator for Big Cats at FOUR PAWS
Leopards on the other hand have rosettes that are smaller, they are grouped more closely together and can also show broken lines. The coat colour varies from bright golden yellow to pale yellow and rust red-yellow, with a white belly. The coat is short with black spots on the head, neck, shoulders, legs, and backside. On the side and the back, the black spots form broken circles.
Both leopards as well as jaguars can have a black (melanistic) coat. These animals are typically referred to as “black panthers”, making it even more complicated, as this term can be used for both species.
When it comes to similarities, both are regarded as big cats. Britt discounted the popular belief that the measurement for being a big cat is that it must be able to roar.
“While most of the big cats can roar, this is not the reason why they are called big cats.”
Big cats typically refer to the five species that fall within the genus Panthera, so it is based on genetics. Lions (Panthera leo), tigers (Panthera tigris), leopards (Panthera pardus), jaguars (Panthera onca) and snow leopards (Panthera uncia) are all considered to be big cats, making it even more complicated, as this term can be used for both species.
Jaguars have the status of Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List of threatened species, while the status of leopards is indicated as Vulnerable on the same list. Both species are listed as in decline, due to several factors, including habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict, and the demand for the commercial trade of big cats and their parts.
When it comes to distribution, the leopard can persist in many different habitats and is found across Africa and Asia. They are known to be able to survive in high human densities, living right on the fringes of major cities, such as Mumbai. Additionally, they can cope with extremely cold temperatures (-30 degrees Celsius in Russian boreal forests) and extremely hot temperatures (70 degrees Celsius in deserts).
Jaguars are found in Central and South America, such as in Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, and Peru.
So, the next time you need to spot the difference between these two big cats, be sure to look more carefully at the way they present those rosettes and the size of their heads.