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Leopards and jaguars, legends of the animal kingdom that are very difficult to tell apart.

They are wild cat members of the Panthera genus, along with lion and tiger. These are the only animals capable of making a roar and are the most fearsome predators in the wild.

It’s very difficult to tell them apart because they are never seen in the same place – except in zoos and that doesn’t count. So you need to look at many subtle differences.

Here are the top 12 differences that will help you understand jaguar vs leopard.

1. Where do they live?

The easiest way to tell the difference is to think about where you are.

Leopards are native to Africa and parts of the Middle East and Asia. The vast majority of this population is found in East and Southern Africa.

Two young leopards having fun in Sabi Sand

Wild jaguars can only be found in South and Central America, with most of the population residing in the Amazon.

Female jaguar in its natural habitat

Of course, you could see both in a zoo. But who wants to see captive animals when they can be experienced in the wild!

2. Spots

At first glance it’s almost impossible to tell the difference between leopard and jaguar spots. Both have a beautiful rosette pattern that’s quite distinct from a cheetah’s solid black spots.

Leopard rosettes are small and tightly packed.

Leopard rosette pattern

Jaguar rosettes are larger and inside these rosettes there is a central black spot.

Jaguar rosette pattern

3. Size

Jaguar are larger although this isn’t immediately distinguishable. They weigh similar to humans, with males ranging from 60 – 100 kg (132 – 220 lb), yet sometimes getting as big as 150 kg (330 lb).

Both species are sexually dimorphic, which means that the females are smaller and lighter. For jaguars this difference is only 10%. However, female leopards can be up to 30% lighter than the males.

Male leopards are almost the same size as male jaguars, from 40 – 90 kg (88 – 198 lb). The females are much smaller, sometimes just 28 kg (61 lb).

Leopard and jaguar are virtually the same height, with the average South American cat just a couple of centimetres taller than an African leopard at the shoulder.

4. Body shape

Body shape is the easiest trick when comparing jaguar vs leopard.

Jaguars are stocky animals, with broad shoulder muscles and a robust build. They have short and compact bodies.

Female jaguar on the banks of the Cuiabá River

Leopards have longer, more slender bodies. So despite weighing less, leopards are longer than their South American cousins.

Beautiful male leopard with an intrigued look

5. Tail

If body shape isn’t enough to tell them apart then look at the tail. Jaguars have short tails to match their stocky bodies. Leopards have long feline tails to match their longer, slimmer bodies.

6. Head shape

Leopards are good looking. They have small angular heads with sharp cheekbones and clearly defined lines.

Young leopard resting on a termite mound, with magnificent sunset colours

In comparison, jaguar have fat rounded faces. Their heads are much larger and their ears aren’t as prominent.

Jaguar portrait

7. Natural habitat

Both these cats are adaptive hunters that can survive in many different habitats. They are most commonly associated with trees. Popular perception is that jaguars live in the rainforest and leopards live in trees on the African savannah.

This may reflect the 21st century but back in history these cats had far larger ranges. Jaguars used to roam California, the Grand Canyon and Texas. Unfortunately they were hunted to extinction in North America.

Leopards used to live in Hong Kong and Japan. They’ve found leopard fossils all over Europe. In Russia, leopards inhabit snowy forests and brave temperatures of 25 below.

Africa’s leopards are most abundant in areas of savannah, where there is a mix of grasslands and trees. Jaguars now find sanctuary in deeper rainforest as they have lost their habitat elsewhere.

8. Jaguar and leopard are solitary animals

Leopard and cub family portrait

Both species display similar behaviour. They are expert predators who live a solitary existence and fiercely defend their territory.

If you see more than one then it is either a mother with cub, a mating pair, or you are in a zoo.

9. Leopards are faster, jaguar are stronger

African leopards can reach a top speed of 56 – 60 km/h (35 – 37 mph). Using stealth they creep up on their prey before accelerating to top speed in just a few strides. Here is the complete story on how fast is a leopard.

Jaguars are only a little slower and can comfortably reach 50 km/h, even though a dense rainforest doesn’t provide space for them to do this.

Both these species have some of the strongest jaws in the animal kingdom. Jaguars are a little stronger and have a bite so powerful it can pierce the shells of tortoise and other armoured prey.

These spotted hunters typically kill their prey through suffocation, delivered by a strong bite to the throat or neck. Jaguar are unique in that their teeth are strong enough to pierce the skull of their prey.

10. What about black panthers?

Black panther resting on a tree in Manas National Park, India

Black panthers can be leopards or jaguars! How confusing is that?

The black fur is caused by something known as melanism, a natural pigmentation that causes the fur to turn black. It is similar to what causes some lions to have white fur, but is different to albinism (albinos) as this is an absence of colour.

Look closely at any black panther and the rosette patterns are still visible, they’re just obscured by the new black pigmentation. So to compare jaguar vs leopard you have to look at body shape and tail instead.

Rosette patterns on a black panther

Some researchers have argued that the black colour is a sign of natural selection. Black fur provides better camouflage when hunting in very low light so it is advantageous. However, this is yet to be proven.

Rosette patterned leopards and jaguars can’t give birth to a black panther. If one of the parents has the black melanism it may be passed onto the offspring.

11. Leopard vs jaguar at climbing and swimming

Jaguar swimming across the Cuiabá River in Brazil

Leopards can swim when they need to, such as to reach an island or cross a river. Jaguars are superb swimmers and go diving for food, such as caimans and large fish.

A slender figure and longer tail makes the leopard more agile. It is a better climber and more adept when running at speed through the trees.

12. Both jaguar and leopard are endangered

The current outlook doesn’t look good for either of these magnificent species. Leopards are vulnerable on the IUCN red list while jaguar are near threatened. Their populations have dropped significantly over the last century.

The more people that learn about leopard vs jaguar the more who are aware of the challenges facing these animals in the wild: habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, hunting, poaching.

Let’s hope that the 21st century brings a change and these incredible cats see their range and population increase.