Jaguar vs. Leopard

The jaguar vs. the leopard—these two magnificent spotted big cats are both members of the Panthera genus, are muscular ambush predators and are so similar in coat appearance that even the savviest animal lover can have a tricky time telling them apart in photos. And while a black panther is easy to identify because of its, well, very obvious black color, most people mistakenly think that it is its own species. Nope. Let’s take a minute to learn a bit more about what sets a jaguar, leopard and black panther apart. 

The easiest and quickest way to figure out if you are looking at a jaguar or a leopard is by location. They live on completely different continents. If the spotted cat happens to be in Latin America, it’s definitely a jaguar. And if you see a spotted big cat in Africa, Asia, the Middle East or Russia, it will be a leopard (cheetahs have spotted coats but a significantly slighter build and don’t count as a “big” cat). 

Jaguar walking in the jungle.

When it comes to looks, jaguars are bigger and bulkier than leopards, weighing up to 250 pounds compared with the 175-pound leopard.  But let’s be real, if you spot one in the wild you probably won’t be trying to figure out if the creature you see before you weighs in more like 190 or 170. So let’s go for body shape. Jaguars are stockier and more muscular than the leopard, with a shorter body, shorter legs and a broader chest. They also tend to have a large barrel-like abdomen. Male jaguars can often look like they swallowed a truck tire or are somehow pregnant. The leopard, though, is much more delicately built than its South American counterpart. It has a more slender and longer body, longer legs and a generally more lithe appearance. Don’t think it a weakling, though, because despite its light frame, it can still easily drag the large carcasses of its prey up a tree. 

Another way to tell the difference between a jaguar and a leopard is by looking at their heads, which are quite different and suit their unique hunting styles. Jaguars have large heads with a broad forehead, wide jaws, massive teeth and a round shape to their faces. The jaguar’s huge jaw muscles and teeth give it the strongest bite force of any mammal, allowing it to pierce right through the armor of caiman and tortoises. It uses its powerful jaws to crush the skulls of its prey or to sever the spinal column with a forceful bite at the back of the neck. In comparison, leopards tend to have smaller heads, and kill their prey by a suffocating bite to the throat (with larger prey) or to the back of the neck (with smaller prey).

Female leapord in Botswana.

© Alex Mazunga

The leopard has a much longer tail, which helps it keep its balance when climbing trees. Jaguars are also good climbers, but not as agile in the trees as the leopards. But the jaguar doesn’t need to climb as much, as it doesn’t have any natural predators. The jaguar reigns supreme in its habitat and doesn’t have to drag its prey up into the trees to protect its dinner from other predators like lions, hyenas or tigers, like the leopard does. Jaguars instead love to hang out by the water and specialize in hunting caiman and capybaras on the riverbanks. Leopards generally avoid water and prefer to hunt deer and other terrestrial prey.

As for their iconic spotted coats (the spots are called rosettes), leopards have smaller, less complex rosettes that are grouped closer together. The jaguar’s rosettes tend to be much larger and their rosettes have spots inside them. 

Their differences aren’t just physical. Jaguars tend to have a more self-confident and relaxed attitude. They are king of their jungle and they definitely know it.  Leopards, though, can be flat-out mean, always having something to prove and are always on the lookout for bigger predators than themselves, such as lions. Jaguars are not known for being aggressive toward people—if confronted, they usually stick to snarling or growling in their direction. On the other hand, there have been reports of leopards attacking people. 

A black panther is the melanistic colour variant of the leopard (Panthera pardus) and the jaguar (Panthera onca). Amazon forest, Brazil.

A black panther is the melanistic colour variant of the leopard (Panthera pardus) and the jaguar (Panthera onca).

What is a Black Panther?

So now that we have those two cleared up, what’s up with the black panther? Simply put, a “black panther” is not its own species—it’s an umbrella term that covers any big cat with a black coat. A panther is defined as a melanistic color variant of other species in the Panthera genus of which both jaguars and leopards belong. The condition is caused by the agouti gene, which regulates the distribution of black pigment within the hair shaft. This color variant is black or dark brown, since melanism is the development of melanin, a dark-colored pigment in the skin. A panther then is either a black-colored leopard in Asia and Africa (Panthera pardus) or a black jaguar in the Americas (Panthera onca).  Just because black panthers are dark in color doesn’t mean they don’t have spots—they’re just harder to see.  When their coat catches the sunlight in a certain way, you can see their spots very distinctly.

Human activity such as deforestation is greatly reducing the territory available for all of these big cats to live on, making them endangered species. They are all unfortunately hunted for their fur as well. Panthers are now so rare that they are hardly observed in the wild by humans anymore. For this reason, they are known as the ghosts of the forest. Jaguars, because of their tendency to lounge by water, are often the easiest for humans to spot. For those with interest in seeing jaguars in the wild, a trip to the Pantanal in Brazil is the best bet. ​​Declared a World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 2000, the Pantanal’s huge expanse of wet marshlands and dry islands make it South America’s primary wildlife sanctuary. Porto Jofre has the highest density of jaguars in the entire Pantanal, and the chance of spotting these creatures in the wild is excellent, especially from mid-June to mid-October. On a Nat Hab adventure, we explore this region on foot, by boat and 4×4, making this one of South America’s most sought-after wildlife safaris for nature enthusiasts.