A big cat found in much of the Western Hemisphere is the jaguar (Panthera onca). Jaguars are the only cat in the panther family found in the Americas, and they are the third largest of the big cats, eclipsed only by lions and tigers. Jaguars can weigh up to 400 pounds.

Jaguars are stout, stocky animals that can grow to weigh 200 to 400 pounds. Jaguars have behavior very similar to that of a tiger. They tend to inhabit dense forests, swamps or shrubby brush land areas. They normally hunt by stalking and ambushing their prey.

Credit: - Doruk Salancı

Like tigers, jaguars are very good swimmers and are most often found near large rivers. Jaguars have large heads and very strong jaws, which they use to crush their prey's skull or shell. Jaguars will feed on deer, tapir, monkeys, fish, snakes, turtles, caimans and small alligators.

The jaguar was once found throughout much of the southwestern part of the U.S., but like many big animals it was extirpated from much of the U.S. in the early 1900s. Biologists believe a small population still exists in southern Arizona.

The jaguar is found throughout much of Central and South America, with the greatest numbers found in the Amazon River basin. Jaguar numbers are declining throughout most of their range mainly due to deforestation and poaching, especially in the northern part of its territory in Mexico.

Some conservationists believe the building of the border crossing between Mexico and the U.S. will jeopardize U.S. and Mexican jaguar populations by inhibiting mingling of breeding stock.

Until the 1960s, jaguars were widely hunted for their pelts, but with the CITES act of 1973 the trading of jaguar fur became illegal. Jaguars are considered to be threatened animals throughout much of their range, except in Bolivia, Ecuador and Guyana, where hunting is either permitted or the big cat has no protective status.

Throughout history many of the indigenous people worshiped and respected the jaguar. Some cultures thought of the jaguar as the lord of night or the underworld. The Mayans thought jaguars were the link between the living and spiritual world. The Aztecs believed the powerful god Tezcatlipoca could take the form of a jaguar and respected jaguars for their strength and courage.

Article by FCFCDB

Nature Notes for 3/6/2011