Jaguars, the largest of South America's big cats, once roamed much of the Americas. Today they are found in only a few remote regions.
Average life span in the wild: 12 to 15 years
Size: Head and body, 5 to 6 ft (1.5 to 1.8 m); tail, 27.5 to 36 in (70 to 91 cm)
Weight: 100 to 250 lbs (45 to 113 kg)
Protection status: Near Threatened
Jaguars are the largest of South America's big cats. They once roamed from the southern tip of that continent north to the region surrounding the U.S.-Mexico border. Today significant numbers of jaguars are found only in remote regions of South and Central America—particularly in the Amazon basin.
These beautiful and powerful beasts were prominent in ancient Native American cultures. In some traditions the Jaguar God of the Night was the formidable lord of the underworld. The name jaguar is derived from the Native American word yaguar, which means "he who kills with one leap."
Unlike many other cats, jaguars do not avoid water; in fact, they are quite good swimmers. Rivers provide prey in the form of fish, turtles, or caimans—small, alligatorlike animals. Jaguars also eat larger animals such as deer, peccaries, capybaras, and tapirs. They sometimes climb trees to prepare an ambush, killing their prey with one powerful bite.
Most jaguars are tan or orange with distinctive black spots, dubbed "rosettes" because they are shaped like roses. Some jaguars are so dark they appear to be spotless, though their markings can be seen on closer inspection.
Jaguars live alone and define territories of many square miles by marking with their waste or clawing trees.
Females have litters of one to four cubs, which are blind and helpless at birth. The mother stays with them and defends them fiercely from any animal that may approach—even their own father. Young jaguars learn to hunt by living with their mothers for two years or more.
Jaguars are still hunted for their attractive fur. Ranchers also kill them because the cats sometimes prey upon their livestock.
Long ears alert for possible predators, a black-tailed jackrabbit rests near a cactus in the Arizona desert.
Average life span in the wild: 1 to 5 years
Size: 2 ft (61 cm)
Weight: 3 to 9 lbs (1.4 to 4 kg)
Jackrabbits are actually hares, not rabbits. Hares are larger than rabbits, and they typically have taller hind legs and longer ears. Jackrabbits were named for their ears, which initially caused some people to refer to them as "jackass rabbits." The writer Mark Twain brought this name to fame by using it in his book of western adventure, Roughing It. The name was later shortened to jackrabbit.
There are five species of jackrabbits, all found in central and western North America. They are speedy animals capable of reaching 40 miles (64 kilometers) an hour, and their powerful hind legs can propel them on leaps of more than ten feet (three meters). They use these leaps and a zigzag running style to evade their many predators.
Black-tailed jackrabbits are common in American deserts, scrublands, and other open spaces, including farms. They can consume very large quantities of grasses and plants—including desert species such as sagebrush and cacti.
White-tailed jackrabbits are another common species. They frequent North America's plains and farmlands, though they also inhabit wooded areas. They are prolific eaters and can consume over a pound (0.5 kilograms) of grasses, shrubs, or bark each day.
The jackrabbit's breeding prowess is well known. Females can give birth to several litters a year, each with one to six young. The young mature quickly and require little maternal care.
Booming jackrabbit populations can cause problems for farmers, especially in light of the animals' healthy appetite. Jackrabbits are often killed for crop protection, but in general their populations are stable and not in need of protection.