Learning about nature is as highly enjoyable as it is painfully overwhelming. That is not just because nature is insanely diverse. But also the way all living things are interconnected makes studying them more like trying to untangle a messy skein of yarn.
Take, for example, some similarly looking but differently classified animals, such as rabbits and hares, sea otters and river otters, or red pandas and raccoons. They look almost the same but possess completely unalike characteristics that categorise them as different species.
So we, as vigorous advocates of knowledge, love to take part in unveiling these different characteristics, to feel that awe at the marvels of our nature and never forget how lucky we are to live on that mighty planet Earth. In this article, we are going to discuss two animals that, despite looking annoyingly alike, are, in fact, notably unique.
So let’s take a closer look at your pet cat‘s big cousins, leopards and jaguars.
Leopards vs jaguars
Looking at your pet cat’s big cousins, the leopard and the jaguar, makes an interesting Find the Differences game!
And why not? Both of them have robust bodies covered with light-yellow, darkly-spotted fur. Their tails are long, ears are small, eyes are intense, and their canine teeth are long and sharp. Both cats also have strong vocal cords that make their roars audible from a long distance.
Yet, apart from the looks, it is easy to guess that leopards and jaguars are apex predators. So they must be carnivores which means they make great hunters. Their skinny legs also suggest they are fast runners and undoubtedly great at climbing.
So how come they have that much in common?
That is simple, because they are family. To understand the connection between the leopard and the jaguar, we need to review some basic biology facts.
As you hopefully recall, scientists created the taxonomy hierarchy to organise all extant and extinct organisms to better study them. Generally, every life form we know of so far belongs to either of three domains, Archaea, Bacteria, or Eukarya.
The Archaea and Bacteria domains include all the microorganisms with a single, nucleus-free cell. On the other hand, Eukarya contains all the animals, plants, fungi, and any other organisms that are none of the three but have nuclei in their cells.
After the domain, organisms are further classified into different kingdoms, phyla, classes, orders, families, genera, species and sometimes even subspecies. These last two ranks are the most specific.
Leopards and jaguars are two different species with the same classification from domain down to genus. They both belong to a family called Felidae, which incorporates all small,
medium-sized, and large cats, whether domestic or wild. The Felidae family is divided into four subfamilies, two of which are extinct. The other two are extant and called Felinae and Pantherinae.
The Felinae subfamily contains 11 genera, all comprising 34 species. In comparison, the Pantherinae subfamily has two genera, Panthera and Neofelis, of seven species.
Leopards, jaguars, along with lions, tigers, and snow leopards make up the Panthera genus of the Pantherinae subfamily. The other genus, Neofelis, contains two other cat species, the clouded leopard and the Sunda clouded leopard—these are different leopard species from the one we have in hand.
Now that we know how closely related leopards and jaguars are and given that they have almost the same looks as well, one cannot help but wonder, why on Earth are they two separate species, not one? Why is one of them not a subspecies of the other?
Well, that is also simple, because they cannot interbreed.
Scientists mostly decide two species are different based on their ability to interbreed and produce healthy fertile offspring. So they did some experiments to split the dispute over whether or not the two cats should be the same species.
They mated male jaguars with female leopards and male leopards with female jaguars, which produced hybrids called jagupards and leguars, respectively.
What scientists found out when examining those hybrids was interesting. While female hybrids were fertile, males were not. So even though females could produce healthy fertile babies, the fact that males could not breed set a clear difference between the two animals.
As a result, leopards and jaguars were classified as different species.
While this is a significant difference that sets both cats apart, there turned out to be many others that explain how each one of them is beautifully unique.
So let’s explore some of these differences one by one.
1. Leopards live in Africa and Asia, but jaguars are Americans.
One can easily tell whether what they see is a leopard or a jaguar just by learning where each of them lives, for even if they happened to be cousins, they are far from being neighbours.
The leopard is more widely distributed than the jaguar. In fact, it is the only big cat with such a high geographical distribution. It is mainly native to the sub-Saharan region in Africa, the Middle East, Western, Central, and Eastern Asia, India, China, and southern Russia.
However, the leopard population is unequal in all these places. In many countries, there sadly are no more extant individuals. This is known as local extinction. In some places, like the Arabian Peninsula, the population is small yet abundant in others, such as India.
Leopards live in savannas, deserts, grasslands, forests, and mountains.
According to some estimates, about 250,000 leopards are left in the world today. That said, the overall population is declining. In fact, the leopard is listed as vulnerable by the IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, as it is threatened by habitat loss. Animals listed as vulnerable are highly at risk of extinction.
Jaguars, on the other hand, are native to North, Central, and South Americas. More precisely, they are found in the southwest of the United States, Mexico, and most Central American countries as well as parts of Argentina, Paraguay, and the rainforest of the Amazon River.
In the wild, jaguars live in open forests and fields, tropical and subtropical forests, wetlands, and woodlands.
The jaguar’s global population is around 173,000 individuals, way less than that of the leopard. But like the leopard, the jaguar’s numbers are declining, and the species is listed as near threatened.
2. Leopards have subspecies, but jaguars do not.
Subspecies is the taxonomic rank below species. These are individuals that belong to the same species but live in isolated habitats, which created some minor physical differences.
For instance, the lion has two subspecies; one lives in Africa and the other, the smaller of the two, is native to Asia. Likewise, there are the African elephant and the Asian elephant, whose fan ears are smaller than those of the former.
Leopards have eight different subspecies: the African leopard, the Indian leopard, the Arabian leopard, the Sri Lankan leopard, the Indochinese leopard, and the Javan leopard, which is native to Indonesia. There is also the Amur leopard found in eastern Russia, northern China, and the Koreas and the Persian leopard native to Iran, southern Russia, parts of Turkey and some other countries around.
On the other hand, at least so far, jaguars have not reported having any subspecies. Although the population is distributed over broad areas in the Americas, individuals do not seem to possess enough physical differences to be classified as subspecies.
3. Leopards’ rosettes are smaller, but the jaguars’ are fewer.
You might think that leopards and jaguars have the same appearance. But if you look closely, you can realise some distinct physical features. For instance, the leopard has a smaller head and looks more like a cheetah. The jaguar’s head is more round resembling that of a tiger.
Although their bodies are covered with a fur coat ranging in colour from whitish in the underparts, pale-yellow on the limbs and golden on the back, it is the spots on that yellow fur that distinguish leopards from jaguars.
These rose–shaped or paw-like spots are known as rosettes, whose edges are typically black and their insides are yellow. Every individual of the two species has a unique rosette pattern that is not found in any other.
Rosettes on leopards are small but many. The jaguar’s rosettes are larger but fewer. They also have thicker edges, and their insides are of a darker yellow hue than that of the fur around them. The jaguarian rosettes also have tiny dark spots, like nuclei, on the yellow insides.
Another difference in appearance is caused by a rare condition called melanism. Melanin is the dark pigment that makes the skin, hair, and iris black. So when an animal has a super high percentage of melanin in their cells, they are born black.
This condition can be found in both leopards and jaguars. Yet, the melanistic individuals look a little different. While the black leopard is entirely black, jaguars, in many cases, have their skin ranging from pale brown and dark grey to black. This makes the rosettes a little visible.
4. Leopards are longer, but jaguars are taller and heavier.
Now that a little bit of staring taught us some differences in appearance between the leopard and the jaguar, let’s keep staring to pick up the differences in size as well.
Leopards have thin, muscular bodies, with males being larger than females. They are 65 cm tall, on average, at the shoulders. The entire body length, from nose to tail, is 230 cm, with the tail measuring 84 cm. They also weigh between 35 and 65 kg.
Leopards living in different countries may record other, mostly bigger, body measurements than the average ones we just mentioned above. The leopard’s eight subspecies also vary in size. The largest is the Persian leopard, while the Arabian leopard is the smallest. The remaining subspecies fall somewhere in between these two.
On the other hand, the jaguar is larger than the leopard. In fact, it comes in third after the lion and the tiger.
Male jaguars are also larger than females. On average, they stand for 72 cm at the shoulders and measure 1.5 m from nose to tailbone. The tail extends for another 45-75 cm. They also have a mean weight of 76 kg.
Like leopards, some jaguar individuals from different places were found to have exceptional measurements. But generally, jaguars that live in the northern habitats weigh less than those in the south.
5. Male leopards mate at 1.5 years, but male jaguars mature at three years.
Male leopards are mature enough to breed when they turn a year and a half. However, females are not usually ready for marriage before they hit two years old and sometimes two years and a half.
The leopard breeding season differs based on the location. In some places, breeding can happen at any time of the year. In others, it is only confined to a few months. A female leopard stays pregnant for 90 to 105 days, giving birth after that to two to four cubs at a time.
Leopard cubs are born blind, yet their entire bodies are covered with fur. Mothers take full responsibility for their cubs, nursing them for three months before taking them out for hunting. At the age of 1.5 years, cubs usually separate from their mothers and start living independently.
Leopards live between 12 and 17 years in the wild and longer in captivity.
On the other hand, jaguars seem to have a little different reproduction cycle. For instance, female jaguars are mature before males. They can breed at two and a half years old, while males cannot mate unless they hit three or four years old.
On average, a female jaguar stays pregnant for 101 days, then gives birth to two to four cubs. Jaguar cubs are also born blind but furred. Mothers nurse their cubs for three months then introduce them to solid food for three other months before they teach them how to hunt. Jaguar cubs leave their mothers when they are about two years old.
Compared with leopards, jaguars have a shorter life span, living for a maximum of 11 years in the wild.
6. Leopards are solitary, but jaguars may sometimes get together.
Like most cats, leopards are shy, solitary animals. They are territorial, keen on keeping their distances, nervous at any intervention to their home ranges, and aggressive when feeling threatened.
Taking that into account, leopards are not familiar with the concept of family. Males and females only get together to mate. After that, males leave females to care for the young independently.
Leopards are nocturnal or diurnal based on where they live. But whenever they are active, they go out to look for food and rest for the rest of the day. Their activity times were also found to change based on the season, just like we tend to sleep earlier in winter and stay up more in summer.
Jaguars too are solitary and territorial. But in some locations, males were found to form temporary unions whose members cooperate to define their territories. Together, like a little army of their own, they may also invade and take over other territories.
Jaguars in some places are nocturnal and in others are diurnal. That said, they tend to be active whenever their prey is active and around, which makes a lot of sense if you think about it.
7. Leopards have wider jaws, but jaguars have deadlier bites.
Leopards have super jaws which, when open, are wider than that of any other big cat. But the jaguars’ jaws are much more powerful, and their bites are the third deadliest after those of lions and tigers.
Both cats have long canine teeth, measuring four to five cm.
Jaguars are faster than leopards. They run at an average speed of 80 km/h and can reach a maximum of 105 km/h. On the other hand, the leopard’s maximum speed is 58 km/h, which may increase by several additional kilometres if the leopard is hunting on an empty stomach.
Both cats are strong swimmers, with jaguars being faster and better divers.
Here we reach the end of today’s journey in which we explored several differences between the leopard and the jaguar, the two mind-blowingly similar yet still exceptionally unique wild cats.
We started by discussing the leopard’s and the jaguar’s classifications and understood why each is a separate species despite the many common features between them.
Then we moved to list a few things that set them apart, from their geographical distributions and different habitats to their subspecies and variations. We also studied their appearances and learned some traits that distinguish one from the other, such as their rosettes, body lengths and heights.
After that, we explored their unique reproductive cycles, what types of relationship they have with their partners and peers and which one of the two species is more likely to socialise.
Finally, we demonstrated some of their super skills, such as running, swimming, and biting.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article as much as we loved writing it for you. If you can now tell leopards and jaguars apart, you can also learn some differences between the two similarly looking moon bears and sun bears here or explore how chipmunks differ from squirrels.
Why not subscribe to our LearningMole Library for as little as £1.99 per month to access over 1500 fun educational videos.