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How Can You Tell One Panther Species from Another?

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Panthers, or members of the Genus Panthera, also called 'roaring cats', include lions, tigers, leopards, and jaguars. Although among the best known species in the cat family, the roaring cats can be easily confused due to similarities in their coats. But armed with a few facts, you can quickly narrow down the possibilities when trying to place a name with a cat.

  • Lions—Adult lions have no stripes or spots and are tawny in appearance. Male lions are the only cats that have manes, or a thick frame of bushy hair around their face and head. Juvenile lions have brown spots and grayish coat until they reach three months in age.
  • Tigers—Tigers are the largest of all cats. They have an orange coat, black stripes and lighter fur under their belly and chin.
  • Jaguars—Jaguars have a tan colored coat with black rings (or rosettes). Inside the rosettes, there are black dots. Some individuals are completely black. Often confused with the leopard but jaguars are stockier than the leopards and have more substantial legs.
  • Leopards —Leopards are tan with black rosettes, usually no dots inside the rosettes. Occasionally, leopards exhibit melanism, a genetic mutation in which the skin and fur contain larger than normal amounts of dark pigments. This results in a leopard that is very dark to black in color all over its body (though in some cases, the cat's black rosettes may sometimes be visible).

Of all the cats, jaguars and leopards are the most often confused. Their markings are very similar but they have different statures and slightly different rosettes. To distinguish between the two species, examine the rosette pattern. Jaguars have spots in the center of the rosette while leopards do not have spots inside the rosettes. Another (perhaps easier) way to distinguish between them is by their distribution. Jaguars inhabit South and Central America while leopards inhabit Africa and Asia.

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