Jaguar (Felis onca)

(See also O'Brien, Stephen, & Warren Johnson, "Evolution of Cats", Scientific American July 2007, pp. 68-75)

Like Mountain Lions, Jaguars are large, tawny-colored cats, but the adult Jaguar's background color is uniformly covered with spots -- on tawny back and sides with rosettes(a ring of black with a small black spot in the center) and on the white belly with black spots (Burt & Grossheider, cited on main Mammals page, p. 77).

According to recent DNA studies (see citation above), Jaguars are members of the Felid lineage Panthera, which includes all the great "roaring cats"(lion, tiger, leopard, jaguar, and snow leopard) and was the form ancestral to all modern cats. These new DNA studies suggest that jaguars entered the New World from Asia together with lions some 3 to 4 million years ago, then both were exterminated from North America during the Pleistocene extinctions, but the Jaguar had continued into South America and then in Holocene times returned to the north from that late-Pleistocene sanctuary.

Once ranging as far north as the Great Plains, this big cat now barely enters the United States -- according to Burt & Grossheider [p.79], only in the southeastern tip of Arizona and the southwestern tip of New Mexico. Recent more northerly sightings in southeastern Arizona suggest that a few more may be straying toward our area, so we make reference to them here.

Since 2003, conservationists from the southwestern United States and Mexico have joined to form Northern Jaguar Project, a group building a sanctuary preserve in the Sonoran Sierra Madre between the Aros and Yaqui Rivers in order to protect these endangered wild cats. The NJP also operates a small scientific research station there to study the biodiversity of this critical area. See that link for more information on this important binational conservation effort.

Below is a copy of a recent article on the subject by Kent Patterson of the Center for Latin American and Border Studies at New Mexico State University, Las Cruces.

The Return of a Big Border Cat?

Fierce and secretive, the jaguar long has long held
mystical and spiritual significance for the indigenous
cultures of the Americas. Today the big cat continues to
stir symbolic meanings for many others as well. Sports
teams, a sleek automobile and a leading Mexican rock group
are all named after the wild animal. Once inhabiting a vast
area from Patagonia to the Great Plains of North America,
the jaguar's survival is threatened by hunting and habitat
destruction. Now, some hope to turn the situation around
and ensure the protection and recovery of jaguars across
national borders.

An international seminar dedicated to jaguar preservation
concluded this past weekend in the south-central Mexican
city of Cuernavaca, Morelos. Attended by about 50 wildlife
specialists, veterinarians and environmental officials, the
meeting resolved to redouble jaguar recovery efforts and
develop a health protocol for diseases that afflict the
animals. Quoted in the Mexican daily La Jornada Morelos,
Dr. Rodrigo Medellin said Mexican scientists have decades
under their belt of developing "very concrete studies
related to the survival of the jaguar" in different regions
of their country.

Bill Van Pelt, the non-game birds and mammals program
manager for the Arizona Fish and Game Department who
attended the Cuernavaca seminar, said in an interview with
Frontera NorteSur that jaguars are a priority species for
the Trilateral Committee, a tri-national wildlife
monitoring body made up of Canada, Mexico and the United

In Mexico, jaguar populations are mainly concentrated in
the nation's southern and northern borderlands. Significant
concentrations are found in the Yucatan Peninsula and the
Lacandon Rainforest of Chiapas state, as well as in
northern Sonora state south of Douglas, Arizona, where an
estimated 70-100 animals are believed living.
Jaguars were
once believed extinct in the United States, but several
wild cats have been photographed in the border regions of
southern Arizona and southern New Mexico since 1996, most
recently in July of this year when a new picture of a
jaguar was snapped in Arizona.

The reappearance of jaguars in the Mexico-US borderlands is
encouraging a small but steady movement to preserve the
mammals and assure their recovery.

"The public is very interested and engaged in conserving
this species," Van Pelt said. "People believe that this is
a jungle animal," he added, "but that doesn't mean they
can't occur in other habitats." Van Pelt said clusters of
jaguar like the ones found in Sonora could represent keys
to the species' future survival, constituting population
pockets able to withstand ailments or other threats
threatening denser, core groups.

"If the animals aren't conserved in Mexico, they won't be
here," he said.

"Mexico is being very aggressive at jaguar conservation.
They see a very direct connection culturally with the

An advisory committee to Mexico's Ministry of the
Environment and Natural Resources is developing
recommendations for the jaguar's future. The Mexican
federal environmental agency is in the process of
developing a nationwide jaguar protection plan for 2006,
according to Van Pelt.

Like the Mexican gray wolf, the jaguar has been a bone of
contention between environmentalists, wildlife officials
and ranchers in this country. Unlike the Mexican gray wolf,
which was reintroduced over the protests of some ranchers
who feared livestock depredations, a US jaguar protection
policy would involve protecting an animal which may have
been north of the border all along.

"I was thrilled to learn about the photos of a jaguar taken
in (New Mexico's) Peloncillo Mountains in 1996," said
Michael Robinson, a New Mexico representative of the non-
profit Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) "The
presumption is that these are jaguars from Mexico which are
reclaiming their old territory, but no one knows that for a

Robinson said it's possible jaguars could be roaming as far
north as New Mexico's Gila Wilderness. The jaguar advocate
told Frontera NorteSur that a personal acquaintance from
Silver City spotted what could have been a rare black
jaguar in the Gila area in 1999. Plaster casts made of the
animal's tracks indicated it was either a jaguar or an
extremely large mountain lion, Robinson added. Jaguars are
bigger than their smaller cousin, the mountain lion.

Van Pelt contended that jaguars spotted in recent years in
Arizona are likely to be animals which have crossed over
from Mexico, based on available surveillance evidence and
hunter reports. He said two or three big cats have been
pretty well documented as presently living in Arizona.
Despite their tiny numbers, jaguars were kept off the US
endangered species list until 1997. Six years later, the
CBD and Defenders of Wildlife sued Interior Secretary Gale
Norton and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to
force a jaguar recovery plan under the Endangered Species
Act. The suit was settled last year, giving the USFWS until
July 2006 to decide whether or not to designate critical
habitat for the jaguar.

In Arizona and New Mexico, meanwhile, the Jaguar
Conservation Team has been assembled with representation
from government officials, ranchers, landowners, and
environmentalists. According to Arizona Fish and Game's Van
Pelt, who serves as the habitat subcommittee chair for the
team, quarterly public meetings are being held, with the
next one possibly happening in the next few weeks. Van
Pelt's subcommittee is using GIS technology and other
methods to characterize jaguar habitat on this side of the

National security is one matter that could complicate the
jaguar's future north of the border. The CBD's Robinson
said border control measures under consideration by the US
Department of Homeland Security including fences, new roads
and stadium-style lights could restrict the movements of
wild cats and "affect the ability of the U.S. to recover
the jaguar."

Kent Paterson  

Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news

Center for Latin American and Border Studies

New Mexico State University

Las Cruces, New Mexico

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A comparison of Jaguar and Mountain Lion tracks is provided below (click on the image to enlarge it):