Know your Sloth Predators: The Mighty Jaguar

Know your Sloth Predators: The Mighty Jaguar

Known for their impressive hunting abilities, jaguars (Panthera onca) are both feared and revered. Weighing a hefty 56-96 kg (120-200+ lbs) they are the biggest felines living in the Western Hemisphere and the third largest cat species on Earth (after lions and tigers).

Boasting one of the most powerful bites in the animal kingdom, their name comes from the indigenous word “yaguareté” which means “true, fierce beast” or “he who kills with one leap.”

So what do jumping jaguars and stealthy sloths have in common?  They are more intertwined than first meets the eye.

Sloths and Jaguars

Like most apex predators, jaguars are also a keystone species, helping to maintain a balanced ecosystem by keeping herbivore populations in check. Jaguars are opportunistic hunters, and prey upon almost anything they can get their jaws on. To name a few, they eat capybaras, deer, tortoises, iguanas, armadillos, fish, birds, and monkeys.

They even have the ability to take down South America’s biggest mammal, the tapir, and catch an equally formidable predator, the caiman.

Unfortunately for sloths, they are also on the list. Sloths have evolved their stealthy habits to remain hidden from their main predators jaguars and harpy eagles, who rely on their sense of sight to find them. If discovered, the sloth’s remarkable grip strength helps them to survive an attack by avoiding being pulled from the trees by these powerful predators.

They are both threatened by habitat fragmentation

Like sloths, jaguars are particularly vulnerable to the effects of habitat fragmentation, especially on the grand-scale. Although, jaguars have been sighted as far north as the deserts of Arizona their range of six million square km (over 2,316,000 square miles) extends from northern Mexico through Central America into Northern Argentina.

historic current range of jaguar
Although jaguars are widespread, their total population is estimated to be only 173,000./Image:

Jaguars require large amounts of primary rainforest in order to survive. A study that monitored the activity of jaguars in Southern Mexico using GPS collars, determined that a female jaguar used at least 180 square km over the course of a year and a male jaguar had a home range of 430 square km. A healthy population of 500 jaguars could require anywhere from 153,250-192,400 square kilometres (approximately 60,000-75,000 square miles)!

The jaguar’s main stronghold is the Amazon basin, with half of the world’s population of jaguars living in Brazil. In South America, the historic range of the jaguar has been reduced by half and overall jaguar populations are decreasing.


jaguar corridor panthera mesoamerican
In addition to protecting large swaths of jaguar habitat, Panthera aims to connect these areas through preserving and restoring and biological corridors./Image: Panthera

Although protected areas are key to their survival, maintaining and restoring connectivity throughout their range is essential for the health of the species. Reknowned jaguar scientist Alan Rabinowitz (1953-2018), known for establishing the first jaguar preserve in Belize in 1986, was particularly concerned about this issue. In 2006, he co-founded Panthera to protect jaguars and other wild cat species across their ranges.

Since jaguars require such vast amounts of intact forest, they are also known as an umbrella species. Conserving jaguars benefits a variety of other species, including sloths.

They are both hunted

In addition to habitat loss and fragmentation, one of the main threats to jaguars is poaching. Although sloths are protected in many places where they are found, they are still hunted. The endangered maned sloth in Brazil is particularly threatened by hunting.

Jaguars are victim to two main kinds of hunting: revenge killing and poaching to sell jaguar parts on the black market. Hunting jaguars out of revenge usually occurs after a jaguar has killed livestock. Fortunately, organizations such as Panthera, reduce conflict between jaguars and people by implementing a variety of anti-predator strategies, such as putting livestock in enclosures at night.

Surprisingly, the most sought after parts of the jaguar are their canines, which are used to make jewelry or traditional Chinese pseudo-medicine.

Sloth and Jaguar coats are designed for camouflage

Sloths and jaguars are both interested in staying camouflaged, although for opposite reasons! Sloth fur has specialized grooves along the shaft of each hair and microcracks which help to trap moisture and promote the growth of algae and fungi.

The algae and fungi growing on the sloth will eventually turn the sloth green, a perfect disguise for an animal that seeks to blend in with the canopy of a tropical rainforest.

Jaguars’ coats are also designed for camouflage. Like other spotted cats, their rosettes help them to camouflage and enable them to remain hidden while sneaking up on unsuspecting prey.

jaguar camouflage
The rosettes of the jaguar help them to blend into their surroundings./Image:


jaguar leopard difference
Although jaguars are sometimes mistaken for other big cats, such as leopards, their spot pattern is quite unique with small dots inside of their rosettes./Image: The Wildlife Diaries.

They both have unique mating calls

When a female three-fingered sloths is in heat, she will call out (in the key of D sharp) to let males in the vicinity know that she is ready to mate. Since sloths are not known for their speed, she can call out for several days before a male sloth finally reaches her.

Jaguars are among the four species of big cats that can roar. To communicate during the breeding season, both male and female jaguars will roar to each other, which sounds like the sawing of wood.

They both have impressive teeth

Although their diets differ quite a bit, both two-fingered sloths and jaguars sport some pretty intimidating teeth.

Despite their peaceful reputation, two-fingered sloths have remarkably sharp teeth. Their teeth are also constantly growing, meaning that their upper teeth rub against their bottom ones in a way that grinds them down and sharpens them. Although their sharp teeth are not used to tear meat, they are useful for biting through tough leaves with ease.

sloth teeth canines two-fingered
This is why you don’t want to get too close to a two-fingered sloth/Image:

Jaguars have the strongest bite force of any big cat relative to their size.  Powerful jaw muscles paired with a shorter jaw enables the jaguar the leverage and the strength to pierce the skull of their prey.  The jaguar’s remarkable jaw strength and impressive canines allows them to bite through even the tough skin of caimans.

They are both great swimmers

Jaguars are one of the few cats that willingly go into water. Since they live in tropical rainforests, they need to be able to cross bodies of water in order to access all the parts of their habitat. The jaguar’s excellent swimming skills allow them to navigate rivers and prey upon the animals that live in them.


Sloths are also surprisingly good swimmers. Their stomachs, which are often full of fermenting gases, help them to float as they swim across open bodies of water. Male pygmy three-fingered sloths (Bradypus pygmaeus) will swim to follow the mating call of a female sloth.

They are the stuff of legends

Due to their elusive natures, sloths and jaguars are hard to study in the wild. GPS collars and well-placed camera traps have given us a glimpse into the lives of these fascinating creatures but myths still abound about both of them.

There is still so much we don’t know about sloths. Because of their curious attributes, a variety of myths have emerged about them. There was even a Greek God of slothliness.

Jaguars were revered by many ancient Mesoamerican cultures. Associated with light and dark, the jaguar’s duality was worshiped by many ancient civilizations. The Mayans believed that their keen night vision enabled them to move between worlds, and they were associated with death and the Underworld.

black jaguar cub melanistic
“Black panthers” are not a separate species but the result of extra melanin in the coats of jaguars and leopards./Image:

In order to effectively conserve jaguars and sloths, we must come to understand them. Scientists and concerned citizens continue to shed light on the behavior and habitat requirements of sloths and jaguars, which is essential information for us in learning how to live peacefully alongside them.

But beyond our understanding, these curious creatures deserve to be appreciated for their unique qualities and protected as integral parts of tropical ecosystems.

-Katra Laidlaw