All the big cats have inspired their share of myths and legends, but only the jaguar has dominated the religion and culture of a continent. From the beginning of recorded time in Central and South America, the image of the jaguar has loomed larger than life throughout art, religion, and myth. In Peru, five-thousand-year-old jaguar sculptures have been unearthed among the artifacts from the Chavin de Huantar, the earliest known civilization in South America. Some two thousand years ago the Olmec people of southern Mexico created giant pavement mosaics of a fierce jaguar god and carved elaborate twenty-ton statues of jaguar heads. The jaguar is the largest felid in the Americas. Morphologically it is similar to the leopard. The jaguar, however, is heavier and looks like a much more powerful animal. The jaguar lacks the lithe grace of the leopard; instead, it is a strong, stocky-looking cat, deep-chested, with an unusually large head and short, sturdy limbs. Even the jaguar’s canine teeth are more robust and have a more powerful bite than those of the other big cats. Lions, tigers, and leopards typically kill large prey with a throat or neck bite. The jaguar, however, also uses a third technique that is not seen in the other large felids: it bites through the animal’s skull between the ears or horns. The thick skulls of horses and cattle killed by jaguars often have one or two holes punched through the temporal bone. Capybaras are sometimes killed with a bite to the back of the head, with the canines piercing the braincase; a few skulls have been found that showed how the jaguar had inserted a canine nearly into each ear of the capybara and penetrated the skull.
If you want to see a jaguar in the wild, your best chance is coming to the Piquiri river and surrounding Encontro das Aguas State Park, here during July to October daily encounters with jaguars are quiet normal.
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