Telling the difference between jaguars and leopards can get confusing thanks to their (almost) matching signature spots. But these big cats are, in fact, two separate species, with territorial ranges in two distinct parts of the world. They also differ in several physical and behavioral characteristics.
From body size and spot shape to preferred hunting styles, discover the traits that set jaguars and leopards apart.
Both jaguars and leopards belong to the genus Panthera, part of the big cat family, along with lions and tigers. The jaguar (or Panthera onca) consists of a single species. However, scientists previously described at least nine subspecies, starting in the 1700s.
These include the Arizona jaguar (Panthera onca arizonensis), the Central American jaguar (P. o. centralis), the Yucatan Peninsula jaguar (P. o. goldmani), the West Mexican jaguar (P. o. hernandesii), the East Brazilian jaguar (P. o. onca), South American jaguar (P. o. palustris), the Paraguay jaguar, (P. o. paraguensis), the Peruvian jaguar (P. o. peruviana), and the northeastern jaguar (P. o. veraecrucis).
When it comes to leopards (Panthera pardus), there are nine currently-recognized subspecies: the Indochinese leopard (P. p. delacouri), the African leopard (P. p. pardus), the Arabian leopard (P. p. nimr), the Persian leopard (P. p. saxicolor), the Indian leopard (P. p. fusca), the Sri Lankan leopard (P. p. kotiya), the Amur leopard (P. p. orientalis), the Javan leopard (P. p. melas), and the North Chinese leopard (P. p. japonensis)
Both jaguars and leopards are ambush predators with powerful jaws and spotted coats. Jaguars tend to be larger and bulkier than leopards, weighing between 80 and 350 pounds compared to smaller leopards at 37 to 198 pounds. Jaguars live in Central and South America, while leopards are found in Africa and Asia.
Because of the differences in geography and body type, the two species also differ in hunting behavior. Leopards are leaner overall with longer tails, helping them maintain their balance in the trees where they drag their prey to eat (which also helps protect their meals from competing predators). Jaguars, on the other hand, stalk a variety of denser, wetter habitats like rainforests and wetlands. They use their swimming skills, blocky heads, and strong jaws to crush the bodies of their prey rather than relying on pure agility.
It may look like these two big cats have matching spots from far away, but they’re actually slightly different. Although both animal spots have rosette patterns, leopard spots are more solid and blocky, while jaguar spots have a series of smaller spots within the rosettes.