Jaguars are top predators, known as alpha predators, which keep prey populations in check and weed out old, weak and sickly individuals from among the species they hunt for food. Jaguars prey on animals ranging in size from river turtles to capybaras and peccaries, and in their South American range, they are the largest predator in the food chain and need fear only other jaguars.

Jaguars hunt by stealth and ambush. Their name is derived from a word that means "he who kills with one leap," and their hunting tactics reflect this. Jaguars often bite prey at the base of the neck, killing it instantly with their powerful jaws.

Jaguars mark their territories, the tracts of land where they hunt, by clawing trees and spraying pheromones. This creates a sort of border that warns other jaguars to keep away, though the big cats may challenge one another or come together during mating season to court and reproduce.

Jaguars' coats give them natural camouflage in their home habitats. The rain forest is a gloomy environment, and jaguars are covered in dark spots to help them blend in with the foliage and with the ambient shadows under the trees, making it hard for prey to spot them.