Mad About Science: Jaguars

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist

There are few animals in the world with the capability of preying on humans. Most larger animals will suffer lethal injury if they attempt to hunt humans; because of this, they won’t even try. Big cats are generally an exception to this rule — and jaguars in particular.

Courtesy photo.

Jaguars aren’t the most prolific man-eating cats on the planet, nor is their body count as high as tigers, but make no mistake: The jaguar is perhaps the most dangerous and efficient big cat on the planet.

The jaguar has one of the largest ranges of any big cat on the planet, living as far north as Arizona and as far south as Argentina. What’s more, they are quite large for a feline, with males reaching up to six feet in length and 250 pounds in weight. Essentially, jaguars are the size of football players, but with teeth and claws designed to separate flesh from bone. The awesome terror incited by these facts is compounded by the fact that the jaguar can leap up to 40 feet in a single bound. That’s a distance greater than two short box trucks parked end-to-end.

This incredible evolutionary feat is exactly what earned the jaguar its name. Yaguar is a word of the Indigenous peoples of South America that means, “he who kills with one leap” — and what a leap it is.

Despite being built like a tank, jaguars are actually some of the most stealthy predators on the planet. Their fur often displays patterns that break up their silhouette when creeping through the trees, and they possess an incredible level of control over their muscles, which enables them to stalk silently through brush and bramble. The only time a jaguar’s prey notices the big cat is the moment the big cat has driven it to the ground, and not a moment sooner.

A jaguar’s bite is incredibly powerful, so it’s likely that the prey feels next to nothing before it is dispatched by this incredible hunter. The jaws of a jaguar are capable of exerting up to 200 pounds per square inch of bite force. Putting that number into context, we humans exert up to 126 pounds per square inch at our absolute maximum. Only a handful of animals surpass the biting power of a jaguar, and that includes muscular titans like the hippopotamus and the great white shark.

Despite the fact that jaguars are built to dominate the largest prey in the jungle, they are actually opportunistic predators and will eat just about anything with a heartbeat — including creatures as small as monkeys and turtles, the latter of which can have its shell cracked open by a jaguar’s teeth much in the same way humans crack open sunflower seeds at a baseball game. Jaguars will frequently feed on other predators as well, including caimans, which can reach up to 88 pounds.

Unlike your cat at home, a jaguar isn’t afraid of getting a little wet. In fact, a jaguar may spend a considerable amount of time hunting in the water, as they are some of the most proficient mammalian swimmers on the planet.

Most jaguars have a camouflaged coat with a number of dark ringlets scattered all over. These ringlets are broken up and form a number of individual spots and speckles that differentiate it from leopards that lack these spots. There is also a genetic mutation among jaguars that makes their entire coat a solid obsidian black, making them appear almost like panthers. This mutation is fairly rare outside of the dense jungle, as jaguars with a coat like this are less likely to survive to an age to reproduce in an area where there isn’t considerable shade from thick tree cover.

Speaking of reproduction, jaguars are legendary Casanovas — while breeding, jaguars will copulate up to 100 times per day. This will usually result in a litter of one to four cubs after three and a half months. Each cub is about the size of a loaf of bread when it is born, and on top of being one of the cutest things on the planet will actually squeak like a large kitten until it grows large enough to eviscerate you in a single pounce.

Jaguars are at-risk in the wild, with experts estimating there are somewhere around 15,000 still left in nature. Their pelts are highly sought-after by poachers and the selfish jerks who fund them, and their forest homes are being cleared away to make room for luxury crop plantations including coffee, chocolate and vanilla. An unknown number of jaguars are a part of private collections around the world, including a number in the United States and United Kingdom, respectively.

Owning an apex predator that could eat your skull with the ease that you eat sushi seems like a terrible idea to me.

Stay curious, 7B.

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