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Jaguar (Panthera onca) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Taxonomic History & Nomenclature

Common name

  • Etymology
    • May be derived from yaguara ("any larger beast of prey") of Amazon natives
  • Spanish common names
    • El tigre, otorongo, tigre americano, tigre real, yaguar, yaguarete

Scientific name

  • Etymology (from Gotch 1995)
    • Genus Panthera from Greek referring to a cat 
    • Specific epithet onca the Greek word for "a lynx"
  • Subspecies
    • Traditional treatment
      • Eight traditional subspecies based on skull characters
    • Modern genetic studies suggest no justification for defining subspecies
    • Select subspecific names
      • P. onca arizonensis (Arizona jaguar/Arizona, New Mexico)
      • P. o. centralis (Central American jaguar/ El Salvador south to Columbia)
      • P. o. goldmani (Goldman's jaguar/ Yucantan Peninsula south to Belize)
      • P. o. paraguensis (Paraguay jaguar/ Matto Grosso in Brazil to northern Argentina and Paraguay)
      • P. o. peruviana (Peruvian jaguar/coastal Peru)
      • P. o. veraecrucis (Vera Cruz jaguar/eastern and southeastern Mexico to Texas)     



Evolution of modern felids

  • Origin estimates
    • Likely arose in Asia
    • c. 10 million years ago (Mya)
  • Diversity and divergence
    • 8 major clades (groupings) of cats, according to genetic studies (from Johnson et al 2005)
      • Panthera genus
        • Includes the jaguar, lion, leopard, and tiger
      • Ocelot lineage
      • Domestic cat lineage
      • Puma lineage
      • Lynx genus
      • Leopard Cat lineage
      • Caracal lineage
      • Bay Cat lineage
    • The clouded leopards (Neofelis neofelis) were first of the pantherine lineage to diverge

Genus Panthera

  • Fossil remains
    • Earliest fossils dated at 3-4 Mya, from Tanzania (Barry 1987; Turner 1997)


  • Distribution
    • Species (spp) formerly found in Africa, Asia, and Europe
      • A Pleistocene jaguar (P. gombaszoegensis) also found in England, Germany, Spain, France, the Netherlands, and England
    • Spread to North America from Asia via Beringia
      • North American fossils are recorded in 850,000 to 1.5 million year-old sediments
  • Ancestor of modern jaguars
    • Panthera onca agusta considered the immediate ancestor of modern jaguars
      • Fossil sites in Tennessee, Texas, Missouri, and La Brea asphalt deposits (California)
    • Pleistocene jaguars were longer legged and larger than modern jaguars
  • Origins of modern jaguars (P. onca)
    • Suggested origin 280,000-510,000 years ago, based on analysis of mitochondrial DNA
    • Center of origin likely from northern South America
      • Mexico (and the southwestern U.S.) and Central America populations were presumed colonized from South America
  • Diversity of modern jaguars
    • Comprise 4 main groups based on genetics and geography
      • Groups are only partially isolated and are not subspecies
      • This large, wide-ranging carnivore has characteristic genetic continuity throughout its existing range - the only such carnivore in the world. (Jaguar Corridor Initiative downloaded May 31 2010

Cultural History

Popular cultural references

  • Documentary appearances
    • Wild Brazil: Land of Fire and Flood - 2014, BBC
      • This series follows the intimate lives of an exceptional set of animal characters as time moves from the vast floods of the wet season to the ravaging fires of the dry season.
    • Lost Land of the Jaguar - 2008, BBC
      • A look at the plants and animals, including Jaguar, that inhabit the landscape of Guyana.
  • Research/Memoirs
    • An Indomitable Beast: The Remarkable Journey of the Jaguar - Rabinowitz, 2014
      • Author Alan Rabinowitz shares his own personal journey to conserve this species, bringing new research to life.
    • The Carnivore Way: Coexisting with and Conserving North America's Predators - Eisenberg, 2014
      • Eisenberg follows the footsteps of six large carnivors, including the Jaguar, as she discusses the well-being of these animals is a critical factor in sustaining healthy landscapes.
    • Spirits of the Jaguar: The Natural History and Ancient Civilizations of the Caribbean and Central America - Reddish, 1997
      • A study of the region's wildlife and natural history.
    • Big Cats: Kingdom of Might - Brakefield, 1996
      • Combining photography with research and personal observations of the largest cats.
  • Children's Books
    • A Day in the Life: Rain Forest Animals: Jaguar - 2010
    • Animals that live in the rainforest: Jaguars - Guidone, 2009


Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Carnivora

Family: Felidae

Subfamily: Pantherinae (leopard, lion, tiger, jaguar, snow leopard, clouded leopard)

Genus: Panthera

Species: Panthera onca* - jaguar

*Status of subspecies is unlcear (Quigley et al. 2017).

Describer (Date): Linnaeus, 1758. Systema Naturae Per Regna Tria Naturae Secundum Classes, Ordines, Genera, Species, cum Characteribus, Differentiis Synonymis, Locis, 10th ed. Uppsala, L. Salvii, 1758.

Jaguar Killing a Tapir

Painting of a Jaguar

Image credit: Color plate from E. Igersall's 1906 The Life of Animals: the Mammals. Available from the © Biodiversity Heritage Library via Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Page Citations

Barry (1987)
Eizirik et al. (2001)
Gotch (1995)
Hemmer et al (2001)
Johnson et al. (1997)
Johnson & O'Brien.(2006)
Larson (1997)
Oesch (1969)
Pocock (1939)
Seymour (1989)
Turner (1997)
Wozencraft (2005)

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