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Melanistic jaguars (or “black” jaguars) occur primarily in parts of South America, and are virtually unknown in wild populations residing in the subtropical and temperate regions of North America; they have never been documented north of Mexico’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

Melanistic jaguars are informally known as black panthers, but (as with all forms of polymorphism) they do not form a separate species.

Results of DNA analysis shows the lion, tiger, leopard, jaguar, snow leopard, and clouded leopard share a common ancestor, and that this group is between six and ten million years old; the fossil record points to the emergence of Panthera just two to 3.8 million years ago.

The base coat of the jaguar is generally a tawny yellow, but can range to reddish-brown and black, for most of the body. The cat is covered in rosettes for camouflage in the dappled light of its forest habitat.

The Greek pan- (πάν), meaning "all", and thēr (θήρ), meaning "prey" bears the meaning of "predator of all animals".

Use of the word for a beast originated in antiquity in the Orient, probably from India to Persia to Greece.

In Mexican Spanish, its nickname is el tigre: 16th century Spaniards had no native word in their language for a cat smaller than a lion but bigger than a leopard nor had ever encountered such a creature in the Old World, and so named it after a cat whose ferocity would have only been known to them through Roman writings, popular literature during the Renaissance.

Onca is the Portuguese onça, with the cedilla dropped for typographical reasons, found in English as ounce for the snow leopard, Panthera uncia.

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