Wikijunior:Big Cats/Jaguar

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A spotted jaguar

The Jaguar is sometimes called Onça by South Americans and El Tigre (the tiger) by Central Americans. Long ago, they called it Yaguara, the "cat that kills with a single spring." Both names convey the awe and reverence this largest New World cat inspires. Their gold coat spangled with black rosettes was said to be the stars of night. In the Mayan religion, the sun took the form of a jaguar when travelling through the underworld at night. Jaguars are closely related to lions, tigers, and leopards. The jaguar and leopard are almost the same but their spots are different. If you look very closely you will see that they have a different pattern.

Where do jaguars live?

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Places where jaguars live are colored green.

Jaguars live in the rain forests and more open countryside in South and Central America, and are the largest members of the cat family there. Jaguars are strong swimmers and climbers, and they often prefer to live by rivers, in swamps, and in dense forest with thick cover for stalking prey.

Jaguars once lived as far north as the southwestern United States. The last wild jaguar in the United States died around 1960. Some of these cats are once again migrating north from Mexico.

What do jaguars look like?

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A black jaguar clearly showing its darker spots

Jaguars look very similar to leopards, but they behave more like tigers. The jaguar has the strongest jaw structure in the cat family. Its powerful cheek muscles and lower jaw gives the Jaguar a much more rounded face than the leopard. Jaguars are also rather short-legged compared to other cats, which increases their strength rather than their speed.

Jaguars usually have background fur that is orange-yellow in color. There are numerous rings of spots on their flanks and spots on their heads and necks. Jaguars and leopards can be distinguished by the fact that jaguars have spots within the centers of their ring markings, while leopards do not. Some scientific evidence suggests these two cats are very closely related but jaguars are native to the New World while leopards are native to the Old World . There are some jaguars that seem to be entirely black in color, but the spots can still be seen if you look closely. Jaguars with the all black coloring are sometimes called black panthers, but they are really jaguars.

What do jaguars eat, and how do they catch their prey?

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Jaguars mostly take large prey, such as deer and peccaries, but they are great opportunists and will eat anything from frogs and mice to birds, fish, and domestic livestock. Jaguars can run quite quickly, but do not have much endurance and rarely make long chases. Their strong, muscular jaws let them crush through large, thick bones and they can even crunch through a turtle's shell quickly. This great strength allows these cats to crush the skull of prey animals rather than suffocating them with a neck bite, as most cats do. Jaguars have very good night vision and do most of their hunting on the ground at night. They are nocturnal creatures, meaning that they prefer to be active at night.

Fun facts

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  • Jaguars will sometimes wait by the water, hitting it occasionally with their tail. When fish are attracted by this, they swipe out with a paw, spearing the fish in their claws.

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