Big cats – like lions, leopards and tigers – are among the few animals with enough brawn and moxie to take on a full-grown crocodilian. While these predators certainly target the occasional toothy ᴘʀᴇʏ, jaguars are likely the most frequent croc ᴋɪʟʟers. The recently photos from National Geographic’s docuseries Hostile Planet showcases the jaguar’s caiman-ending prowess.
When big cat photographer Steve Winter went to Brazil’s Pantanal National Park in 2016, he was on a mission to document jaguars. And in the story of how he got one of his most incredible shots, Scarface is his protagonist.
Winter had been trailing the 10-year-old alpha jaguar non-stop for four days. Traveling down a river that cuts through dense Brazilian forest, Winter and his cameraman Bertie Gregory had seen the large cat with a split lip lunge at and miss over a dozen previous targets. They were beginning to think they wouldn’t document a ᴋɪʟʟ.
Winter was ready to give up on the cat. “Then boom—he went underwater.” What Winter documented next unfolded in only 15 seconds.
Bobbing his head underwater to firmly grasp his ᴘʀᴇʏ, Scarface emerged from the river with a caiman in his jaws. Jaguars are big cats, the third largest in the world, but Winter’s photos show the caiman to be nearly twice as large.
Maneuvering out of the water quickly and gracefully, Scarface drags the reptile fully out of the water and into dense forest cover. Winter couldn’t see what happened next, but presumes that once the jaguar’s powerful teeth ᴘᴜɴᴄᴛᴜʀᴇᴅ the caiman’s vertebrae, its fate was sealed.
When he finally saw Scarface make a ᴋɪʟʟ, Winter says, he was full of adrenaline, and his hand was cramping from holding down the shutter button on his camera for so long.
Jaguars are able to hold onto larger, powerful ᴘʀᴇʏ like caiman because of the way they ʜᴜɴᴛ. Other big cats ᴋɪʟʟ their ᴘʀᴇʏ by clamping their jaws around its neck and sᴜꜰꜰᴏᴄᴀᴛɪɴɢ it. Jaguars instead ᴋɪʟʟ by puncturing their ᴘʀᴇʏ with powerful ʙɪᴛᴇs.
While the ʜᴜɴᴛing sequence isn’t commonly documented, caimans are a well-known source of food for jaguars. During this region’s dry season, animals like caimans and capybaras can be found more abundantly in and around rivers.