Many species of wild cat feature a yellowish coat with black spots. This familiar coloration can be found on cats such as the long-legged serval and the speedy cheetah. However, there are two types of wild cat – the leopard and the jaguar – that are quite similar and feature the distinctive pattern of “rosettes”, spots that are clustered into rose-like shapes. As both the leopard and the jaguar are “big cats” in the genus Panthera, it can be quite difficult to tell them apart. Never fear – that’s why we’re here! In this, the second installment of Which Cat is That? we’ll sort out just how to tell a leopard from a jaguar. (And if you haven’t read our first installment of Which Cat is That? about the bobcat and the lynx, find it here.)
First, let’s take a look at what makes these two big cats so similar – those rosettes. What are they for? Well, while they look quite striking when the animal is viewed on its own outside of its natural habitat, these distinctive spots actually help the cats blend into their environment. The pattern helps to conceal the predators while they stalk their prey, by mimicking the shadows of leaves and other vegetation.
|Jaguar (Wildlife Wonders Collection)||Leopard (Wild Safari Collection)|
Now, what makes these two similar cats different? Let’s find out:
- First off, it’s all about location, location, location. Jaguars are found in the Americas, mostly in South and Central America, with a small population possibly still existing in the extreme southwestern United States. Leopards, meanwhile, are found in Africa and Asia. So if you’re in the wild and you see one of these cats, hopefully from a safe and respectful distance, you’ll be able to tell which one you’re looking at based on where you happen to be at the time.
- Aside from location, there are some physical differences between leopards and jaguars. Jaguars are usually larger than leopards. Their heads in particular are bigger and broader. They usually weigh over 200 pounds, and large males can weigh as much as 350 pounds! Leopards, meanwhile, typically weigh under 200 pounds, and their maximum weight is 212 pounds. Leopards are slimmer in appearance, while jaguars are much heavier-bodied. While the jaguar is stockier and larger in terms of its body, its tail is actually shorter than the leopard’s.
|Jaguar coat up close (not center spots in rosette)||Leopard coat up close (note no spots in center of rosette)|
- While the rosette pattern is something the two cats share, they are not identical. Jaguars tend to have larger rosettes, with black spots encircling a center spot. The rosettes on a leopard are usually smaller and more tightly packed on the cat’s coat, with spots arranged in a circle, with no spot in the center. The Ocelot is another cat that features a rosette pattern, though it is much smaller than both the leopard and the jaguar, so it’s unlikely to be confused with them. The serval and the cheetah also have spots, but the spots are scattered and appear as individual dots, rather than clustered rosettes.
- The two spotted “big cats” also differ in their behavior. While both are extremely formidable predators, they tend to react differently to animals that are as large or larger than them. A leopard will tend to avoid a confrontation with an animal like a lion, while a jaguar will often refuse to back down when faced with a fellow predator, such as a caiman. And while jaguars and leopards both excel at swimming, leopards will avoid water whenever possible whereas jaguars love going for a dip. Leopards are also better at tree climbing, though both cats can be found in trees.
By now you probably have a pretty good idea of the differences between these two spotted cats. Well, allow us to throw a wrench in all that, and introduce you to the black panther. Black panthers are melanistic, meaning that they have more dark pigment than usual, which results in an all black coat. Both jaguars and leopards can be melanistic, and both are referred to as “panthers” in this coloration. Since they don’t have easily visible spots, it can be difficult to tell if a panther is one cat or the other. However, the length of the tail, the overall build, and the location of the cat can help you determine which is which.
|Jaguar||Black Panther (Melanistic Jaguar)|