How to Tell the Difference Between a Leopard and a Jaguar




It has been mentioned before that a leopard, a jaguar and a mountain lion were different cats that had occasionally been called panthers, and the confusion this could cause.

For a lot of people, though, it is very hard to tell the difference between a leopard (Panthera pardus) and a jaguar (Panthera onca), especially if they are seen in a photograph or see them at a zoo. Aside from the fact that both of these animals are big cats, they are actually quite different. It shouldn’t even be difficult to tell them apart, once they are compared to each other.

Leopard range and diet

leopardLeopards live in the old world, primarily in Asia, the Middle East and Africa. In those areas, these cats hunt for prey in grassy areas and forests alike. Besides being skillful at hunting and even fishing, leopards seem perfectly happy to scavenge. These are stealth hunters, often dropping onto prey, such as gazelles, from a tree branch or hiding motionless in tall grass until the prey comes close enough that the animal can make a sudden dash and pounce, usually breaking the neck of its victim with a single bite. Baboons are also on the dinner menu, when they are available, and the felines additionally eat rodents and reptiles, too.

Leopards are usually quite willing to eat what is left of a hyena or lion kill though, if there is indeed anything left. These cats are powerful enough that they will often drag meat or prey to a tree, then up into the tree to hang over a branch so they can eat at leisure without as much of a chance of becoming food, themselves. Given the chance, lions will kill leopards. Leopards are expert tree climbers, though. Lions can climb, but aren’t especially good at it.

Jaguar range and diet

jaguarJaguars are exclusively American cats, with their range extending from the southern United States, through Mexico and Central America and into South America, primarily in heavy rain forests.

Some sources maintain that these cats were hunted to extinction in the United States in the 1940s, however there are enough sightings reported in the United States to be fairly sure that there are still some of the cats living north of the Mexican border.

Jags are quite variable in their diet, eating rodents (including capybaras, the largest rodent of all), alligators, caiman, tapirs, fish and peccaries, the latter being its favored prey. These cats are more likely to pursue prey than to lay in wait for it. They have a unique way of killing prey, too. Whereas a leopard normally breaks the neck of its prey, a jaguar will often grasp the victim by the head and pierce the skull with their canine teeth. This shows the incredible strength of their jaw muscles. Jaguars can climb trees if they need to, but they prefer the forest floor to climbing.

Size comparison

The leopard is the smallest of the big cats. They stand up to 28 inches at the shoulder and average about four to five feet in length, including their long tail. These cats rarely weigh more than 140 pounds and full-grown females more normally weigh only 50 pounds or slightly more.

A jaguar can reach the length of seven feet and adults usually weigh in excess of 150 pounds, occasionally more, though some can be substantially smaller, too especially in the thick forests of the Amazon basin. Some specimens have weighed more than 200 pounds. The jaguar has a stouter build than a leopard, with shorter legs and a shorter tail. This is the largest and only true ‘big cat’ in the Americas, and it is only surpassed in size by lions and tigers. (Mountain lions, bobcats and lynxes, though often getting sizable, aren’t considered to be big cats.)


Probably the biggest reason for confusion between the two big cats has to do with the coloration. Both have tawny yellowish-golden to light brown coats, and they both have black spots. On the sides of the animals, the spots often appear joined together in patterns that look like circles, with the spots actually touching one another or nearly touching. These are called ‘rosettes’, and the inside of the rosettes are also colored similar to the rest of the pelt, though usually just slightly darker.

However, it is the appearance of the two cats that is one of the easiest ways to tell them apart. Jaguars have one or more black spots inside of the rosettes, while leopards don’t have spots inside any of theirs. This means that if there is a picture of one of these cats that shows the rosettes, it is quite possible to tell which kind of feline is in the photo. Likewise, if the two are next to each other in a zoo, a person can tell them apart. If you look closely at the pictures of the leopard and the jaguar above, you should see the differences in coloration. In fact, a close examination of the top picture should show you which is the leopard and which is the jaguar.

Snow leopards and clouded leopards

A few words need to be said about snow leopards and clouded leopards, because neither is included in this conversation. Snow leopards (Panthera unicial) are a different species than leopards and are more closely related to tigers than they are to leopards. Clouded leopards (Neofelis nebulosa) belong to an entirely different genus. Neither of these are true leopards, despite their common names.

Jaguars and leopards are both big cats, but they are totally different. They live in different parts of the world, they eat different foods, they have different methods of hunting and killing prey and they actually don’t look quite as much alike as many people think. Knowing all of this, look carefully at the picture. Is this a leopard or a jaguar?




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