What Are the Differences Between Jaguars and Leopards?

Jaguars and leopards may appear very similar at first glance. However, their differences are clear to the trained eye.
What Are the Differences Between Jaguars and Leopards?

Last update: 17 April, 2021

There are seven species of big cats in all. Five of them belong to the genus Panthera: the lion, the tiger, the leopard, the snow leopard and the jaguar. Outside the genus Panthera are the cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) and the puma (Puma concolor). They stand out due to their large size, are carnivorous and often play a very important ecological role as top predators in their ecosystems.  In addition, these felines often have similar patterns in their fur, which helps them camouflage in the environment and go unnoticed. These similarities can lead to confusion between the species. However, there are several differences between jaguars and leopards, for instance, that allow us to identify them correctly.

Differences between jaguars and leopards

In this article, we’ll explain the differences between jaguars and leopards, one of the most similar and often confused big cats. Don"t miss out on it.

Geographical distribution and habitat

One of the most overlooked aspects when identifying species is the geographic location. Whenever two species live in different areas —even if both are identical or very similar— it’s easy to know to which species a specimen belongs just by knowing its origins.

This is the case with jaguars and leopards. Jaguars (Panthera onca) live in Mexico, and on the southern border of the United States, as well as in Central America and a large part of South America. It should be noted that historically, it was much more widely distributed. Estimations shows that it currently occupies around 50% of its historical range.

A jaguar walking on sand.

In these places, they preferentially inhabit dense forests near water bodies, with which they’re closely associated. Jaguars mainly inhabit low altitude moist and dry tropical forests, but can also occupy other habitats, such as swamps or grasslands.

Leopards (Panthera pardus) are found in Africa and Asia. They have one of the widest ranges of all felids. Again, their distribution is very fragmented and reduced, and their population dynamics varies greatly depending on the area.

Their habitats are varied, ranging from desert and semi-desert areas to mountainous regions, grasslands, and tropical forests. Some populations even survive in snowy or urban areas.

Differences between jaguars and leopards: morphological traits

Jaguars are taller than leopards, even if their height is quite similar. In addition, jaguars are wider, more robust and heavier. Also, jaguars" heads are larger and rounder, and their jaws are more powerful. Their tails are also shorter than those of leopards.

For all these reasons, jaguars have a more compact and robust appearance, while leopards are more graceful. Regarding their color, both have golden fur that turns white on the belly, and are covered with more or less circular black spots, called rosettes.

Jaguars" rosettes have black spots in the center, are larger and are farther apart. Leopards don’t have such spots on their rosettes, and the latter are smaller and closer together.

This simple detail can be very useful when identifying them, but, in both species, there are also melanistic individuals, whose fur is very dark or completely black, which renders this detail useless. These individuals are popularly known as black panthers.

Differences between jaguars and leopards: behavior and diet

The diet of leopards is incredibly varied. They prefer medium-sized ungulates, but depending on availability and competition for food, they may eat anything from mammals to birds, reptiles and even insects. In addition, many individuals are able to specialize in a particular type of prey.

After catching their prey, leopards often hide it in vegetation or trees to prevent competitors from stealing it, as they often share their habitat with larger predators.

Jaguars also have highly diversified diets. Although they prefer large ungulates, they also feed on smaller prey. Unlike other felines, they’re great swimmers, so they often hunt fish and turtles or even caimans and anacondas.

Jaguars are the largest predators in their ecosystems, so they usually have no need to hide their prey.

A leopard stalking its prey.
A leopard

These are the most important differences when it comes to telling the two species apart. Both leopards and jaguars play key roles in their ecosystems. Currently, both are suffering population declines, so it’s important to get to know them in order to appreciate them, protect them, and prevent their extinction.

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