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Jaguar (Panthera onca) Fact Sheet: Behavior & Ecology

Activity Cycle

Activity Cycle

  • Nocturnal most often
    • Hunt largely at night
      • Daytime activity does occur
    • Activity pattern varies considerably with prey abundance and activity of local humans
      • Sample pattern of 1 female
        • Rests after midnight (00:30 to 03:00) and late morning (09:30 to 12:00)
          • Often seen resting on tree limbs over water
        • Travels before dawn (03:30 to 06:00) and at dusk
  • Behavior in the wild largely unknown
    • Most information gathered by indirect means
      • Radio-collared cats
      • Scat
      • Tracks
      • Observations of kills

Social Groups

Solitary most often

  • Courting pairs form temporary associations
    • Pair may travel and feed together
  • Mother and young
    • Mother cares for young for c. 1.5 years after birth
      • May maintain social bonds until age 2
  • Young litter mates may travel together

Territory Size

Size of male and female home ranges similar

  • Size difficult to estimate
    • Dense habitat makes monitoring difficult
  • Factors affecting size
    • Prey characteristics
    • Jaguar's body size
    • Seasonal land variations (wet season may be underwater)
      • Ranges much smaller in the wet season in Brazil
        • Only 20-30% of dry season territory above water

Regional variation

  • Arizona
    • > 1,359 sq km (525 sq mi), one adult male
  • Mexico
    • 2 to 5 sq km (0.8 to 1.9 sq mi)
  • Belize
    • Males: 33.4 sq km (12.9 sq mi), in wet tropical forests
  • Brazil
    • To 390 sq km (151 sq mi)
    • Pantanal of Brazil
      • 142.25 sq km (54.9 sq mi), in wet grassland and woodland
  • Kaa-Iya del Gran Chaco's Reserve (Bolivia & Paraguay)
    • Males: 65 sq km (25 sq mi)
    • Females: up to 29 sq km (11 sq mi)

Territorial Behavior

Use a "land tenure" system

  • First in an area claims the area
    • Ranges are adjusted when a territory "owner" dies, ranges of others adjust
    • Same system used by tigers, leopards, and pumas
  • Young males nomadic
    • Roam widely until they establish a home range

Spacing patterns

  • Based on regions of exclusive use within a home range
    • Both males' and females' ranges may overlap but not often in their "core" area

Territorial defense

  • Jaguars show some degree of tolerance
    • Recent studies in Brazil indicate that males do not show strong aggression or territorial defense against other jaguars
  • Scent mark to advertise territory
    • Spray urine (backwards), cheek-rub, and claw to claim territory

Social Interactions


  • Ritual fighting
    • Performed by young jaguars
      • Observed in individuals in managed care settings
      • Behavior includes "threat and attack" and "neck snapping"
  • Females avoid all males when caring for cubs
    • Genetic studies indicate under certain conditions, young may be killed by their own sires


  • Participants
    • Females play with cubs
      • Often appears as rough play
    • Siblings (cubs) often play together
  • Play often near water
    • Cubs seen emerging from water and shaking each paw separately
    • Water play by jaguars more common than in tigers



  • Calls similar to those of other big cats
    • Development of vocal skills
      • Young have adult vocalizations by one year (except for calls used in reproductive behavior)
      • Jaguars develop adult structured calls without learning from other jaguars
  • Calls
    • "Grunt" or "Snore"
      • Most common vocalizations
      • Given by males and females
      • Similar to a hoarse barking cough "uh uh uh uh "
      • Audible over long distances
        • Possibly used to advertise or maintain a home range
      • Male grunt is more resounding and stronger than that of the female
        • Female's call becomes louder when in estrus
    • Low pitched roar
      • Produced by shift the larynx downwards (lengthening the vocal tract)
        • Naturally occurs as an animal ages
          • Other animals whose larynx changes position with development include humans and red deer
    • Chuff (or prusten)
      • Series of low-intensity, short snorts
      • Also heard in tigers, snow leopards, and clouded leopards
  • Click here for audio of the Jaguar; provided by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Macaulay Library

Olfaction/Scent Marking 

  • Scent mark
    • Scrape the ground with hind paws
    • Urinate and deposit feces
    • Claw and scrape trees (tree raking)
    • Rub the head onto objects



  • Walk and Run
    • Stride length c. 50 cm(20 in) long
    • Tail carried upwards
    • Tire quickly at top speed
      • Charge at full speed for 7-30 m (23-98 ft)
      • Don't typically chase down prey; prefer to wait in ambush
  • Swim
    • Travel frequently via watercourses
      • Swim from one forested island to another during flood season
      • Rarely cover more than 0.5 km (0.3 mi) while swimming
    • Head and spine held out of the water
  • Climb
    • Strong, easily scale trees
    • Often rest in trees
    • Unclear if jaguars hunt in trees
      • Canopy species, such as spider monkeys, are known to be eaten

Hunting Behaviors

Hunting strategies

  • Stalk and ambush prey
    • Prefer larger prey species and typically make kills in core area territory
  • Killing prey
    • Method similar to that of lions, tigers, and leopards
      • Bite the throats of large prey
      • Crush the skull of smaller prey
        • Bite the skull or use a powerful fore-arm to strike a blow at the head
        • Canines pierce through the skull; only large cat whose canines do this
    • Reports of fishing with the tail
      • Folk legends claim jaguars use their tail to attract fish to water's surface
      • Often observed hunting near the water
  • Consuming prey
    • May drag kill to another location with suitable cover
      • Grasp the carcass in the mouth and drag it, straddled between the forelegs
      • May drag kill over great distances through difficult terrain
      • Do not hide killed prey as do tigers

Interspecies Interactions

Carnivore competitors

  • Coexist with pumas
    • Territories of these cats often overlap
      • Both species intensively use prey-rich transition zones between forest and savanna habitats (eco tones)
        • Pumas may prefer drier microhabitats
      • Extensive camera-trap surveys of jaguar and puma populations in Coxcomb Basin in Belize revealed that both species used the same environment and had the same set of activities but managed to interact little with each by not using areas at the same time of day. (Harmsen et all 2009)
      • Pumas and jaguars may avoid conflict by selection of small patches of preferred territory yet do compete for the same prey species, according to scat studies
    • Species tend to specialize in different pry
      • Jaguars target larger prey items
      • Pumas take medium-sized offerings
  • Jaguar rarely attack other cats
    • Anecdotal accounts of attacks by jaguar on pumas and ocelots

Conflict with humans

  • Jaguars may attack domestic cattle
    • Targeting less likely if more aggressive water buffalo are kept with the other cattle (Hoogesteijn & Hoogesteijn 2008)
  • Jaguars attacking humans
    • Records of attacks on humans rare
    • Least likely of all big cats to attack humans

The Climbing Jaguar

Jaguar in a tree

Jaguar on tree limb.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. All rights reserved.

Page Citations

Azevedo & Murray (2007)
Emmons (1991)
Farrell & Sunquist (2000)
Harmsen et al (2009)
Maffei et al. (2004)
Mondolfi & Hoogesteijn (1986)
Rabinowitz & Nottingham (1986)
Scognamillo et al. (2003)
Seymour (1989)
Soares et al. (2006)
Sunquist & Sunquist (2002)

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