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(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)

The jaguar is a western hemisphere mammal belonging to the Felidae or cat family. It is one of four large cats, the others being the tiger, the lion and the leopard, who all live on the other side of the Atlantic. The four have a common ancestor who lived 6-10 million years ago. The jaguar, or Pantera onca, has only been around for 2-4 million years. It occupies Central and South America.

Jaguars are strongly built, swift animals. Most weigh 125-210 pounds, although a large male can weigh around 300 pounds, with the record being 347 pounds. Fossil evidence shows that larger jaguars of up to 420 pounds once roamed the jungles. Females are about 80-90 per cent of the size of males. Jaguars are about 5-6 feet in length and up to 30 inches at the shoulder. Those in the south tend to be larger than in the north.

A jaguar’s powerful body and short strong limbs make it a good climber and swimmer but it is not as fast across the ground as other cats. It has an extremely strong jaw and can reportedly drag an 800 pound bull 25 feet. Jaguars are an orangey yellow colour with reddish-brown to black spots or rosettes that act as camouflage. Up to six percent of jaguars in some areas are black, due to a condition called melanism, where a large amount of dark pigment granules are present in the skin and fur.

Breeding occurs all year round, although jaguars tend to be solitary creatures and don’t stay together after mating. Gestation is around 93-105 days and a female usually has two pups at a time. Blind at birth, a cub takes two weeks to gain its sight. A cub eats meat from three months and hunts with its mother from six months. It will stay with its mother for a year or two. Females are sexually mature at age two and males at age 3-4. Jaguars live 12-15 years in the wild and longer in captivity with instances of 23 years having been recorded.

Jaguars are territorial and each one will claim a large area for itself. The typical size of a territory is forty square miles for a male and 20 square miles for a female. While female territories overlap, male territories don’t overlap with those of other males, although each male territory can include the territories of several females. A jaguar can be active at any time, but mainly during the hours either side of sunrise and sunset. Sightings are rare, with jungle tour guides going years without seeing one.

A jaguar is what is known as a primary predator and is at the top of the food chain. It will feed on at least 85 different species, including mainly capybara (a three foot long rodent) and peccary (a pig-like ungulate), but also deer, the pig-like tapir, crocodilians, fish, birds, snakes, monkeys, turtles, frogs, mice, dogs, cats and cattle. When the first cattle ranches were set up in tropical America, many cattle were lost to jaguars, and ranchers hired jaguar hunters. The jaguar usually kills its prey by clamping its powerful jaws around the victim’s skull. A jaguar’s jaws can crush turtle and tortoise shells. A jaguar will eat up to 50 pounds of meat at the one sitting, although it may then go lengthy periods eating little or nothing.

Jaguars once occupied the southern areas of the US states of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, as well as throughout Central America, and most of South America except for Chile and southern Argentina. Jaguars disappeared from the US around 1900, although in recent times there have been isolated reports of jaguars in the southern US. Apart from this, they are now confined to western and southern Mexico, certain other areas of Central America, and most of the northern and central parts of South America.

Its habitat varies from lowland jungles to montane forests up to 6,500 feet, although they have been found as high as 12,500 feet. Jaguars are also found in wetlands and dry grasslands, although they prefer dense forest, and water. They will live near rivers and have also been known to inhabit isolated beach areas.

Threats to the jaguar include deforestation, human settlement, poaching, hurricanes, and hunters from cattle ranches, making it a threatened species. In the 1960s, an estimated 15,000 jaguar skins a year were taken from the Amazon basin. The Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species in 1973 banned international trade in jaguars. Work by the World Conservation Union and the Wildlife Conservation Society has helped lift the jaguar’s chances of surviving to “high” in 70% of its remaining habitat. However, numbers are still declining. Jaguar hunting is banned in most countries, although Ecuador and Guyana have no protection for jaguars, and Bolivia still allows trophy hunting.

Population estimates for the species are few and usually old. In the Amazon and Orinoco basins, jaguars are reported as common in some areas and extinct in others. In the early 1990s, Brazil’s Pantanal wetland of 60,000 square miles had an estimated 1400 jaguars, Mexico’s Calakmul Biosphere Reserve of 2,400 square miles had 125-180 and Chiapas state a further 350, Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve of 9,000 square miles had 465-550, and Belize had 600-1000. Belize’s Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary is the jaguar’s largest protected habitat. The animal is extinct in Uruguay and El Salvador.

The jaguar played an important role in Mesoamerica where it was a symbol of power and divinity. In the Olmec civilisation, carved sculptures portrayed the jaguar as part feline part human. The were-jaguar has also been found carved into jade, celts and altars. The Moche culture included a jaguar symbol in many ceramics. In the Mayan civilisation, the Jaguar God of the Underworld ensured the sun’s path under the earth each night. Jaguars were thought to aid communication between the dead and the living, and Mayan kings were given names with the word jaguar. Mayan royal tombs contained up to 15 sacrificed jaguars. For the Quiche Maya people, three of the first four humans were given names meaning Jaguar Cedar, Jaguar Night and Dark Jaguar. The Aztecs had a special army force called the jaguar warriors.

Jaguars are common in modern culture too. The Jaguar motor vehicle is perhaps the best-known example. Guyana has the jaguar as its national animal. Jaguar guitars were used in surf music. Various sports teams have Jaguar as part of their name.

The jaguar prospered as a proud hunter for millions of years. The arrival of Europeans seriously threatened its existence. More recently, conservation work has sought to prevent the extinction of this majestic animal, although its future is not yet assured.