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Leopards, Cheetahs and Jaguars — What’s the Difference?

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

cheetah

Story at-a-glance -

  • Most big cats, including leopards and jaguars, belong to the genus Panthera, but cheetahs, which do not have retractable claws and don’t roar like most other big cats, belong to their own genus, Acinonyx
  • Leopards, which live in Africa and Asia, are often mixed up with jaguars (Panthera onca), which live in Central and South America
  • Compared to leopards, jaguars are bigger and stockier, weighing up to 250 pounds compared to leopards’ 150 pounds
  • Unlike leopards, which may avoid the water, jaguars love to swim and eat caiman and anacondas regularly
  • Cheetahs’ coloring may resemble that of leopards and jaguars, but they have spots, not rosettes, which may meld together into stripes or splotches, and distinctive black “tear stripes” on their face

Big spotted cats are often referred to as leopards, cheetahs and jaguars interchangeably, but there are significant differences that make each species unique. While most big cats, including leopards and jaguars, belong to the genus Panthera, cheetahs, which do not have retractable claws and don’t roar like most other big cats, belong to their own genus, Acinonyx.1 What other differences exist between these fascinating cats?

Leopards — Smallest Big Cats in Their Habitat

Leopards (Panthera pardus) are widespread in sub-Saharan Africa as well as other parts of Africa, the Middle East, Russia and Asia. Their coats can take on many colors, ranging from yellow to greyish or chestnut. There are also black, or melanistic, leopards, which are referred to as black panthers. Leopards’ fur has rosette patterns, which are black circles that resemble roses and help camouflage them in their environment.

Although leopards can swim well, they may avoid the water, preferring to hunt prey, such as deer and other mammals, on land.2 Leopards are often mixed up with jaguars (Panthera onca), which live in Central and South America. But according to Canada’s International Society for Endangered Cats (ISEC), leopards are “relatively smaller and slimmer, with a longer tail and smaller head.”3

Jaguars — Largest Big Cats in Their Region

Compared to leopards, jaguars are bigger and stockier, weighing up to 250 pounds compared to leopards’ 150 pounds.4 They also have the strongest bite force of all the big cats, which, along with their larger size, helps them to take down large prey found in their environment. And, unlike leopards, which may avoid the water, jaguars love to swim.

According to Don Moore, director of the Portland Zoo, “jaguars love water and eat caiman and anacondas as part of their diet.”5 Jaguars and leopards also differ in their attitudes, according to Boone Smith, an independent big cat researcher based in Idaho. Smith told National Geographic, “Jags kind of have that African lion arrogance. They are king and they know it.”6 Further:7

“Though not usually aggressive toward people, if faced with a person, a jaguar will ‘talk at them a lot’ by snarling or growling in their direction. Leopards, he says, are flat-out mean — because they ‘are not the king in their jungle,’ Smith says. They have to be on the lookout for bigger predators, such as lions. But being scrappy means leopards are also more athletic — a leopard can quickly haul an impala up a tree, for instance.”

Jaguars also have rosettes on their fur, which are larger and more complex than the rosettes on leopards, and although both animals have tails, jaguars’ tails tend to be shorter.

Cheetahs

Cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) live in east and southern Africa, in a range that’s just 76% of what it once was.8 Cheetahs are the world’s fastest land animal, capable of reaching 95 kilometers per hour for a brief period. While cheetahs’ coloring may resemble that of leopards and jaguars, they have spots, not rosettes, which may meld together into stripes or splotches.

Cheetahs also have a distinctive black “tear stripe” that runs from the corner of the eye to the mouth. While leopards hunt primarily at night, cheetahs may hunt during the daytime. According to ISEC:9

“These cats hunt more often in the daytime than the other carnivores in their range, for a number of reasons. First is the need to see the terrain during high speed chases; second, they can eat their prey with less chance of disturbance from nocturnal carnivores. In the Saharan mountains, where larger predators no longer survive, the Cheetahs hunt during the cooler night hours.”

About 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, many species of cheetahs existed, but a massive die-off left only a small number of the modern-day species. As a result, cheetahs have only 2% genetic variation, compared to 10% or more in other cats, which leaves them vulnerable to viruses due to a lack of variation in disease resistance.10

Big Cats Are Vulnerable or Endangered

While leopards, jaguars and cheetahs have many distinctions, they share threats to their survival in the form of habitat loss and fragmentation. Jaguars are near threatened, with their primary threat being persistent loss of habitat.11 Leopards fare slightly worse, with a “vulnerable” rating largely due to loss of habitat and prey, and being targeted by humans for killing livestock.12

Cheetahs are also vulnerable, being threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation, depletion of prey and conflict with people.13 Unlike leopards and jaguars, however, they also face a unique threat in people seeking them out as pets.

“The oil-rich Middle Eastern countries are also depleting populations with their demand for Cheetahs as status pets,” ISEC noted. “Many of the cats captured for the pet trade die on route, and killing of the breeding female to take the cubs results in a huge loss to the already endangered gene pool.”14

While you probably won’t come across leopards, cheetahs or jaguars in your own backyard, the more experts are familiar with their similarities and differences, the better conservation efforts can become.