Common names for animals in the Felidae family of cats often lead to confusion. People call jaguars with dark pelts "panthers." The Florida panther, however, is not a jaguar -- in fact, it's not even a panther. The word "panther" is correctly used as a generic name for all members of the Pantherinae subfamily of roaring cats. The Florida panther is a cougar subspecies in the Felinae subfamily and cannot roar.
In prehistoric times, as much as 10,000 years ago, the jaguar (Panthera onca) lived in what is now the state of Florida. The species potentially shared habitat with the Florida panther (Puma concolor coryi), which still lives in the state. Before 1900, the jaguar could be found in the United States as far north as Colorado and as far west as California. Aside from a lone individual photographed in Arizona in 2002, however, the species has largely disappeared from North America.
Today, jaguars are found primarily in Mexico, Central and South America, although there have been isolated sightings of stray individuals that crossed the Mexican border in search of prey. Because of their nocturnal and solitary nature, reliable population estimates are difficult, but at least 10,000 individuals remain. In contrast, there are fewer than 100 Florida panthers. Historically, they ranged throughout the southern United States as far north as Tennessee and South Carolina and as far west as eastern Texas. As of 2013 Florida panthers are restricted to fragmented portions of southern Florida, primarily Everglades National Park and the Big Cypress National Preserve.
Jaguars prefer moist, tropical forest habitat with lots of water. Florida panthers occupy similar habitat in the southern Florida Everglades. Florida panthers control extensive home ranges that average 200 square miles for males and 75 square miles for females. Despite weighing twice as much as Florida panthers, jaguars have much smaller home ranges of around 45 square miles for males and 25 square miles for females. The difference in the size of the animals' home ranges is most likely attributable to the relative quality of their habitats. Jaguars live in relatively untouched, remote South American rainforests with plentiful prey. In contrast, extensive urban and agricultural development have left the Florida panthers with more limited resources.
Both jaguars and Florida panthers are endangered and face similar threats due to habitat loss and human persecution. Since the early 1970s, jaguars have been legally protected in most of the Central and South American countries where they live. In 1984, Belize dedicated an expanse of land specifically for the preservation of jaguars. The United States passed the Endangered Species Act in 1973, and Florida panthers were among the species initially protected by that law. The Florida Panther Record Clearinghouse has managed population recovery efforts since 1976.
- University of Florida IFAS Extension: Jaguar -- Another Threatened Panther
- Jacksonville Zoo Animals: Jaguar
- University of Michigan Museum of Zoology: Animal Diversity Web: Puma Concolor Coryi
- World Animal Foundation: Panther Fact Sheet
- University of Michigan Museum of Zoology: Animal Diversity Web: Felidae
- Tom Brakefield/Stockbyte/Getty Images