Jaguar vs leopard - learn to tell the difference
Left: Young Jaguar; Right: Amur Leopard

Jaguar vs Leopard – How to tell them apart

Jaguar vs leopard –  the two magnificent spotted big cats that are so similar in appearance, most people find them indistinguishable. But can you learn to tell them apart? Well, the good news is, you will never have to guess which of these two cats you are looking at in the wild. Jaguars and leopards live on different continents.

If you are in Latin America or the southern United States, the only big cat you can come across is the jaguar. 

 

And if you see a spotted big cat in Africa, Asia, the Middle East or Russia, it will be the leopard. Unless, of course, you are lucky enough to spot the snow leopard in the Himalayas, but these cats are instantly recognizable by their thick, smoky coats.

However, when taken out of the geographical context, the jaguar and the leopard become quite difficult to tell apart. So, what is the difference between a jaguar and a leopard?

The body shape

The main physical characteristic in which the two cats differ is their body shape. The jaguar is stockier and more muscular than the leopard, with a shorter body and broader chest. It also tends to have a large barrel-like abdomen. Male jaguars, especially often look as if they just had an enormous meal or have miraculously fallen pregnant.

The leopard is much more delicately built than its South American cousin. It has a more slender and longer body and generally has a lighter appearance. However, despite its light frame, the leopard is capable of dragging large carcasses of its prey up a tree.      

Jaguar vs Leopard Body Shape
Jaguar vs Leopard Body Shape

The head

Just like their body shape, the size and shape of each animal’s head are quite different. Jaguars generally have large heads with a broad forehead, wide jaws and round shape to their faces. While leopards tend to have small angular heads with prominent cheekbones and large ears.

 

The differences in these cats’ heads are easily explained in terms of hunting technics. The jaguar has the most powerful bite in relation to body size among wild cats. It uses its powerful jaws to crush the skulls of its prey.

While the leopard kills its prey by the suffocating bite to the throat, or to the back of the neck.

jaguar vs leopard - head
Left: Jaguar; Right: Amur Leopard

The tail

Another physical difference between the jaguar and the leopard, the length of their tails can also be explained by their habits. The leopard has a longer tail, necessary for keeping balance when climbing trees. Jaguars are also good climbers, but their short tails hint that they are not as agile in the trees as the leopards.

And the reason the jaguar doesn’t need to climb as much is that it doesn’t have any natural predators. As the only big cat in the Americas, the jaguar reigns supreme in its habitat and doesn’t have to drag its prey up into the trees.

Leopards, on the other hand, have to protect their dinners from other predators, like lion, hyena or tiger, depending on where they live.

 

Coat pattern

Both jaguars and leopards have spotted coats that feature black rosettes on cream or orange background. This pattern provides excellent camouflage for the cats in the dappled light of the forest. The rosettes effectively break the shape of the animal allowing it to merge with its environment.

But while the leopard’s and the jaguar’s coats appear identical, there are noticeable differences in their rosette patterns. The jaguar’s rosettes have spots inside them, while the leopard’s rosettes are solid. The jaguar’s rosettes also tend to be much larger, while the leopard’s rosettes are smaller and spaced closer together.

Leopard vs Jaguar coat
Jaguar coat vs Leopard coat
An interesting study by the University of Bristol used computers to simulate what the tiger looks like to its prey, particularly to ‘dichromat’ species – those which cannot differentiate between red and green. Scientists have found that while tigers appear bright orange to humans, deer see them as green. Same probably goes for leopards and jaguars – at least some of their prey might see them as green with black spots, virtually indistinguishable against the background of green leaves and blotchy sunlight.

What about the Black Panther?

The term black panther is applied to both, leopards and jaguars, causing a great deal of confusion. A black panther is not a different type of a big cat, it is simply a black morph of either a leopard or a jaguar.

The black fur is caused by a genetic condition known as melanism, where the natural pigmentation turns black. If you look closely at a black jaguar or a black leopard, you will notice that the rosette pattern is still present on their coat, it is just obscured by the black pigmentation.

Black Indian leopard
Black Indian Leopard in Nagarhole National Park. Image – David Vraju / Wikipedia

Black leopards are significantly more common, especially in parts of Asia where they are frequently seen on wildlife safaris. Black African leopards are much rarer. And black jaguars are rarer still.

Black and Spotted jaguars
Black and Spotted Jaguars in captivity. Image by Eduardo Estrada, Wildlife & Conservation Photography / Wikipedia

Behaviour

Jaguars and leopards both can swim very well, but jaguars love water and specialize in hunting caiman and capybaras on the riverbanks. Leopards generally avoid water and don’t tend to hunt crocodiles, preferring deer and other terrestrial prey.

jaguar swimming in the Pantanal
Jaguar swimming in the Pantanal

Another behavioural difference between the two cats is the attitude. While neither would typically attack a human, the jaguar is a fiercer animal. Without any natural predators, the jaguar can afford the attitude and would aggressively defend its kill from larger animals.

The leopard is the smallest of Panthera big cats and often shares its habitat with larger predators such as lions in Africa and tigers in Asia. It tends to shy away from conflict.

So, if you wonder which cat would win in a leopard vs jaguar fight, my money is on the jaguar.

Speed

Both the jaguar and the leopard are ambush hunters. They painstakingly sneak up on their prey until they are within striking distance. The final charge is the sudden burst of speed and power.

Having a lighter, longer body, the leopard is a little faster than the jaguar. It can reach the speed of 56-60 km/h. The jaguar, however, is no lazy sloth and can charge comfortably at 50 km/h.

 

Population

The jaguar (Panthera onca) is unique among big cats in that, all the jaguars, ranging across 18 different countries belong to the single interconnected population, there are no different subspecies of the jaguar.

The leopard (Panthera pardus), on the other hand, is distributed across multiple isolated populations from South Africa to Sri Lanka. The total number of leopard subspecies has been debated over the years, but as of 2017, the Cat Classification Task Force of the Cat Specialist Group recognizes the following 8 subspecies.

  • African leopard (P. p. pardus)
  • Indian leopard (P. p. fusca)
  • Javan leopard (P. p. melas)
  • Arabian leopard (P. p. nimr)
  • Persian leopard (P.p. tulliana)
  • Amur leopard (P. p. orientalis)
  • Indochinese leopard (P. p. delacouri)
  • Sri Lankan leopard (P. p. kotiya)
African leopard
African leopard. Image – Adobe

Conservation Status

Both the jaguar and the leopard are threatened across their entire ranges. The jaguar is listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, while the leopard is listed as Vulnerable.

However, some of the leopard subspecies are in greater peril than the species overall.

The Amur leopard of the Russian Fareast, is one of the most endangered wild cats on earth, with less than 100 individuals remaining in the wild. It is listed as Critically Endangered and faces a serious risk of extinction.

The Javan leopard is restricted to the Indonesian island of Java. With approximately 250 individuals remaining in the wild, it is also listed as Critically Endangered.

The Persian leopard occurs from Turkey and Iran into Afghanistan and Central Asia. Its current population is estimated at fewer than 870-1290 mature individuals and considered declining, despite being listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

Where to see jaguars and leopards in the wild

Leopards have a much wider distribution which makes them the easier of the two cats to spot in the wild. Most African safaris will give you a good chance of seeing a leopard, as well as a visit to Udawalawe National Park in Sri Lanka.

For the best chance of spotting wild jaguars, head to the Brazilian Pantanal to the small fishing community of Porto Jofre, which is developing a reputation of the jaguar watching capital of the world.

jaguar vs leopard - Pantanal
Jaguar in the Brazilian Pantanal

And before you go, here’s a chance to practice your observation skills. Can you spot the difference between a leopard and a jaguar? The correct answers are in the comments below. Here is a summary of the distinguishing features first.

Jaguar vs Leopard summary

Jaguar vs Leopard Self Quiz

 

Check your answers in the comments below. 

Jaguar vs Leopard pin

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