Both big cats are muscular ambush predators with spotted coats and a very similar appearance.
Hence why many tend to confuse the two, or believe they're one and the same. (Listen to the call of a rare Amur leopard.)
We thought Big Cat Week was the perfect time to look at leopards and jaguars and the fine lines between these felines.
Bigger and Badder
Jaguars are bigger and bulkier than leopards, weighing up to 250 pounds compared with the 175-pound leopard. (See "Rare Jaguars Caught in Camera Traps—for Science.")
Jaguars also have huge jaw muscles, teeth, and the strongest bite force of any big cat, says Boone Smith, an independent big cat researcher based in Idaho.
The variance in jaw and body size is likely because jaguars and leopards live in different environments, and thus have to take down different prey, Don Moore, director of the Portland Zoo, says via email.
Both cats are good swimmers, but “jaguars love water and eat caiman and anacondas as part of their diet"—prey that are predators in their own right, and which require incredible force to subdue. (Related: "Photos Show Jaguar ‘Scarface’ Taking Down Dangerous Prey.")
Leopards tend to avoid water and don’t often eat crocodiles, instead opting for deer and other mammals.
You could say the two animals also have their own personality quirks.
“Jags kind of have that African lion arrogance. They are king and they know it,” Smith says.
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. (Learn more about National Geographic's Big Cats Initiative.)
But being scrappy means leopards are also more athletic—a leopard can quickly haul an impala up a tree, for instance.
That’s something you never had to do in gym class.
The spots on jaguars and leopards are called rosettes, jagged black circles resembling roses, with tawny centers on top of a tawny coat. They’re good camouflage for the predators as they move through trees or other vegetation.
Leopards have smaller, less complex rosettes that are grouped closer together.
Both leopards and jaguars can be black, a mutation often referred to as a "black panther." (Related: "What is a Black Panther, Really?”)
The coloring comes from a gene that produces a surplus of pigment called melanin.
We're a little jealous—imagine what a hair coloring job that beautiful would cost in a salon.