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Large Spotted Cats - Cheetah, Leopard, Jaguar

Spotting The Difference

How do you tell the difference between a cheetah and a leopard is a question I get a lot. As they both live in Africa and share habitat I can understand why. Some of you might think the differences are obvious, but many do mix the two. I am here to help you so that next time someone asks or confuses one with the other, you can correct them or guide them on a wiser path of animal knowledge.

As you can see from the photo above, I threw a third cat in there. The jaguar. If you guess or know it to be the one on the far right, then you would be correct. It does not live anywhere near the other two, as it lives in South America, but a lot of people mix it with the leopard anyway. They do look quite similar, but there are some major differences. However, let’s begin with our African feline friends.

Cheetah

Let’s start with the cheetah, the one on the left in the top photograph. The cheetah, not the leopard, is the fastest living land mammal, with speeds up to around 112-120 km/h (70-75 mph). It is, at least for me, the easiest to separate from the bunch. It has long legs and a slim body built for speed. The leopard and the jaguar have shorter legs and are built for power. Just looking at the frame of the cheetah should help you distinguish it from any other cat. If that is not enough though, the spots are also very different. The cheetah has black spots, and nothing more. Just simple round black spots. Like this:

Cheetah Pattern. Photo: Håvard Rosenlund

Cheetahs have simple round black spots and not rosettes and circles like the other two.

The other two cats have rosettes and circles. A last telltale feature of the cheetah is its tear mark on the face. This is a black line going down the face from the eye. Such a line is not found on any other big cat. The black line is an adaptation for daytime hunting, as the black absorbs the light from the sun so that it won’t get blinded. Almost like sunglasses.

Cheetah @ Thanda Private Game Reserve. Photo: Håvard Rosenlund

The tear mark of the cheetah is quite obvious when you look for it.

For more info on the cheetah, click here.

Leopard

Now for the leopard, the one in the middle of the top photograph. The leopard is the shy one, the one you rarely see, and the one that spends most of the time active at night. In contrast to the cheetah, the leopard is actually slower than most of its prey, which means it has to ambush them with power and cunningness. It also gets a lot heavier than the cheetah too; 90 kg (200 lbs) to the cheetah’s mere 72 kg (160 lbs). However, the cheetah is generally taller because of its long sprinter legs. The leopard likes to hide a lot or climb large trees, whereas the cheetah likes to sit in the open and does not have the strength or body to climb trees. You can often tell the difference between a leopard and a cheetah just by where you actually find them and how they behave. To make things even easier, their spots are very different. Where the cheetah has simple spots, the leopard has rosettes, or small circles:

Leopard @ Thanda Private Game Reserve. Photo: Håvard Rosenlund

The leopard does not have simple black spots, but rosettes or small circles with a darker color inside. As you can see, there are no tear marks on the leopard as it likes to hunt at night.

For more info on the leopard, click here.

Jaguar

The jaguar is the largest of the three, and since you only see them in South America you could never be confused as to which animal you see in the wild. Where people mix them up the most are on videos and photographs, and they mostly confuse them with leopards. The worst case of mixing up the two I have come across was on the pamphlet for the South African town of St Lucia, a small tourist town I lived in for a while. It had a jaguar and not a leopard on the front. I know it can be difficult to tell the difference, but it shouldn’t be that hard, especially when you live in a place where you are surrounded by leopards and people photograph them all the time.

Onwards to the differences. The jaguar is very much like a leopard in appearance, but it is much bigger and heavier. In behavior I would say it much more resembles a tiger, although the jaguar is a much better climber than tigers. It is the most powerful of the big cats, relative to size, and its jaws are only second to hyenas of all the carnivores, and it can easily crush turtle shells. The head is broad and large and the black spots around the face are much darker, heavier and denser. With some practise you can easily tell it apart from the leopard on the face alone. The easiest way to tell them apart however, is on the markings on the body. Where the leopard has small rosettes, the jaguar has large circles with tiny black spots inside them:

The jaguar has large circles with spots inside them and not small rosettes like the leopard.

The jaguar has large circles with spots inside them and not small rosettes like the leopard.

Both the jaguar and the leopard have individuals that are totally black, so-called black panthers, but you can even distinguish those. Just think of the jaguar as being a stocky bodybuilder with a large head and the leopard as a lean but muscular athlete and you can often tell the difference.

The jaguar is additionally the only one of these three cats that actually likes water. It is a good swimmer, and often hunts animals in the water. When I stayed in South Africa I got shown this video by many of my South African friends. It went viral in South Africa as a video of a leopard catching a crocodile, and many were amazed that a leopard could do this (there was obviously no narrator in the viral video). Some even said it was filmed in Kruger National Park. The video actually portrays a jaguar in the Pantanal, Brazil, hunting and killing a caiman crocodile and is a well-known footage from National Geographic. A leopard would never be able to do this. After reading the above, it shouldn’t take long for you to recognize this as a jaguar.

Here it is:

Here is another one, more up close this time:

To finish, let’s do a photographic recap of the three cats (click to enlarge):

Cheetah

Leopard

Jaguar

Now you know the differences! If any of your friends are in doubt as to which is which, you can now tell them, or send them here.

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Håvard Rosenlund

Wildlife lover, researcher and conservationist.

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