The Big Cat in the United States

A puma. Even though this cat is big, it is not considered a big cat.

Do you know what is the big cat that lives in the United States? Just so you know, I am not referring to the puma. The puma, also called the mountain lion or cougar, is indeed a big cat if we are describing its size. However, the phrase “big cat” has traditionally been used to describe four cats in particular: the lion, the tiger, the leopard, and the jaguar.

If it seems arbitrary to limit the term “big cat” to four specific cats and leave others out, there is a specific reason. All living cats belong to one family called Felidae. To a creationist, this is very interesting, because it is thought that animals that belong to a single family belong to a single kind. Thus, all living cats, from lions to house cats from cheetahs to bobcats, are all descended from a single pair of cats that left Noah’s Ark after the Flood. That is a huge variety of creatures that can come from a single pair!

The family Felidae is further divided into two subfamilies: Felinae and Pantherinae. All of the big cats belong to the family Pantherinae while the small cats (every cat that is not a big cat) belongs to Felinae. Now, there are a couple of cats that are also in Pantherinae that are not traditionally called big cats. These are the clouded leopard and the snow leopard, which by tradition are small cats.

Not only is there a difference in their classification, there is also a difference in their behaviors. Big cats can roar while small cats cannot. Small cats can purr while big cat cannot.

That is a little overview of the difference between big cats and small cats, and despite their size, pumas can purr but not roar and they are classified in Felinae, thus they are considered small cats. What is the big cat that lives in the United States?

Well, there are four possibilities: lion, tiger, leopard, and jaguar. Lions are out, because they live in Africa and a tiny area in India. Clearly, they do not live in the United States (outside of zoos, anyway). Similarly, tigers live in Asia, and leopards live in Africa and Asia. The jaguar, however, is a candidate for living in the United States because it lives in the Americas. However, jaguars are typically associated with the rainforests of South America, aren’t they?

It is true that the “typical” habitat of a jaguar’s is a rainforest and that their range includes the Amazon in South America. However, jaguars are a little more versatile than that. While they are typically found near sources of water (jaguars are quite capable of swimming and will sometime hunt prey in the water), they are found in a variety of habitats, including woodlands, grasslands, and even semi-deserts. Also, their range is much larger than just the Amazon basin. Their range extends up north into central America and up into Mexico, even as far as the Sonoran desert.

The Sonoran desert might be the most stereotypical desert in North America. If you are familiar with the large saguaro cacti (you know, the things everyone thinks of when they hear the word “cactus”), the Sonoran desert is the desert where they are found. It is found in California, Arizona, and south into Mexico.

Even though it is what we might consider a typical cactus, the saguaro is only found in the Sonoran desert.

Now, while jaguars are found in the Sonoran, they are typically found in Mexico, as opposed to the United States. However, every once in a while, a jaguar wanders a little north and enters the United States. While there are historic sightings of jaguars in several southwestern states from California to Texas. In fact, the state of Arizona identified regions within its area that can be designated as jaguar habitats.

What is most exciting about jaguars in the United States is that while most jaguars found in the United States are visitors from Mexico, there is on jaguar who has actually made his home in Arizona. He has been named El Jefe (Spanish for “the Boss”). He was first spotted in Arizona in 2011 and appears to have made his home there.

Unfortunately, El Jefe appears to be the only big cat in the United States, aside from other jaguars that occasionally stray into some of the southwestern states. There is certainly no population of jaguars here, but it is still interesting to know that the United States it home to at least one big cat.

In case you are wondering, do you know how to tell a jaguar from a leopard? Look at the spots. Jaguars have spots in the center of their rosettes (the clusters of black spots). Leopards do not.

Thoughts from Steven

Information from:

Richard Grant (2016) “The Return of the Great American Jaguar” Smithsonian Magazine, retrieved from on July 11, 2020

James Hatten, Annalaura Averill-Murray, and William van Pelt (2005) “A spatial model of potential jaguar habitat in Arizona” The Journal of Wildlife Management 69(3): 1024-1033

Chris Pupke (2019) “Jaguars in the United States?” retrieved from on July 11, 2020