Lions are famously described as the only social big cats, known for living in extended family units called prides and even forming coalitions, which young males sometimes do before they lead their own prides.
But now, thanks to a research team that monitored trail cameras in the Amazon for years, we know that jaguars form their own coalitions, doing things never before seen like patrolling and marking territory together, cooperating on kills and sharing prey. The researchers focused on areas in Brazil’s Pantanal and Venezuela’s Llanos region, both of which provide varied landscapes and water access for the famously water-friendly big cats, who are strong swimmers and prey on aquatic and land animals.
The team pored through more than 7,000 instances of jaguars appearing on the trail cameras, which gave them a look at a range of jaguar behaviors that normally would not be seen.
“It shows the value of having long-term camera tracking, movement ecology data and direct observations through citizen science,” said Allison Devlin, a co-author of the study. “And from that we’re able to see that if you have a relatively stable jaguar population, healthy prey base, and protection for the species, we can start seeing these more natural behaviors, and start understanding some of the interactions that a solitary species might have.”
In two cases, coalitions between jaguars lasted for more than seven years, the researchers said. The jaguars were seen cooperating for almost every activity as they went about their daily lives in the jungle.
Not only are the findings remarkable, but they’re a reminder that we’re still woefully ignorant about the only big cat of the Americas, especially compared to lions, tigers and leopards.
“The secret life of jaguars is more complex than previously thought,” Devlin said. “We still have so much to learn about the intricate lives of these secretive wild cats, with findings that can help scientists better conserve these species and the landscapes on which so many plant, animal, and human communities depend for their survival.”
One reason they’re less studied than other big cats is because jaguars are notoriously elusive. People who have spent their lives in and on the periphery of the Amazon say jaguar eyes are on humans from the moment they enter the jungle, watching from the shadows. Yet there are no recorded cases of man-eating jaguars, and conflicts with the feline apex predators and humans are rare, most often relegated to instances where people got too close to jaguar cubs or tried to corner the animals. Jaguars do a lot of watching, but they don’t allow themselves to be seen.
Of course that doesn’t mean they’re cuddly. Jaguars are the third-largest cats in the world, after tigers and lions. They have the strongest bite force of any cat, which allows them to crunch through giant turtle shells and kill in one bite by literally crushing the skulls of their prey with their teeth. (The name jaguar comes from the indigenous yaguar, which means “he who kills with one leap.” No other cat kills the same way.)
Jaguars are also perpetually confused with leopards, their look-alike African cousins, which leads to further uncertainty about their behavior and habits. Aside from being separated by an ocean and living on separate continents, jaguars are heavier and have thicker limbs than leopards, and the biggest give-away is the presence of spots within their rosettes, which leopards do not have.