How to Spot the Differences Between Leopards and Jaguars

The big cats are among the most compelling species of the natural world and it’s quite often considered a ‘bucket list’ experience to be able to observe these magnificent animals in their natural habitat.

Panthera onca, aka the Jaguar, is one of the most sought-after sightings, in great part due to its extremely secretive behaviour. For those afforded the privilege of embarking on an organised Jaguar tour to South or Central America, the thrill is most definitely real.

Learning as much as possible about the species beforehand only serves to enhance the experience of a Jaguar tour and understanding the differences between Panthera onca and its relative Panthera pardus, the Leopard, is key. Even though the two are often confused, they have a several points of difference that are quite easily identified.

Never the Twain Shall Meet

The first point to note is that, despite sharing the genus Panthera, the two big cats should never be mistaken in the wild, as they inhabit entirely different regions. Leopards are far more wide-ranging and can be found throughout Asia and Africa, but there is a reason nature lovers can only go on a Jaguar tour in Central and South America, as these are the only places the species exists in the wild.

Spot the Differences

Leopards are the smaller of the two and their body structure is different, with shorter legs, a smaller head and a proportionately longer tail. Their spots, or ‘rosettes’, are also far smaller and more tightly spaced on the body. Even though both animals’ coats can be coloured golden or black (known as melanistic), the Jaguar’s rosettes feature a central spot inside each spot.

Hunting and Behaviour

There are many things the two big cats do share aside from their genus, which include their great hunting prowess, strength and stamina. However, Panthera onca is king of the jungle and is the apex predator of its habitat, able to crush its prey’s skull with one powerful bite. In Africa and Asia the Leopard has far more to contend with in terms of competition and threats, including bears, hyenas, wild dogs and other species of big cats.

While it is the (slightly) smaller and lighter of the two species, the Leopard does come out on top in intelligence, and has the power and agility to climb a tree vertically with a prey carcass that exceeds its own body weight. While both big cats are very good swimmers, Panthera onca actively enjoys the water, while the Leopard will only really go in if necessary.

See the Difference on a Leopard or Jaguar Tour

Due to their different habitats, it isn’t possible to compare the two big cats in the wild. However, those with a desire to see one or the other can enjoy a once in a lifetime experience on an organised wildlife tour to Asia, Africa or Central and South America. Travelling with a responsible and eco-friendly travel company will ensure the best possible chance for multiple sightings, with the least impact on the wildlife and its habitat.

Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in Jaguar watching. Being passionate about her subject, Marissa chooses the expert-led Jaguar tour itineraries organised by Naturetrek, which have brought her unforgettable sightings of a wide range of wildlife in some of the most spectacular regions on Earth.

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Author: Desiree Michels