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Posts Tagged ‘American cheetah’

Not so long ago, in terms of the history of our species and certainly not long ago in the history of the world, two “cheetahs” roamed North America, probably running the pronghorn and Odocoileus deer. They were fast and svelte like that cat of Africa and Asia, but they did not make it into the present fauna guild of this continent. 

The great extinction of the megafauna eventually wiped out the dire wolf and these running cats, which were replaced by the gray wolf sweeping down out of Eurasia and from the cougar recolonizing from South America.

Humans probably saw these cats and maybe stole their kills, maybe not though. They were running cats in the era when North America was like frigid Africa, where the faunal guilds of Eurasia and South America ran long and hard into each other. That of Eurasia eventually dominated in the end, but the opossum and the North American porcupine still made it, even though they were part of that austral losing team.

And where there were scores of fake antelope running about with our swift deer, there were two species of coursing cat to put them to flight.  
Miracinonyx was their genus, and M. trumani and M. inexpectus were the two species.  Trumani was more like a cheetah, and inexpectus was more like a very svelte cougar.

For much of my life, these animals were classified as American cheetahs, and there was a whole mythos about cheetahs first evolving in North America. And yes, it’s true that the cheetah’s closest relatives that still live today are the cougar and the jaguarundi, both of which are truly cats of the Americas.

But a few enterprising researchers were able to get some ancient mitochondrial DNA from trumani, and with careful comparison, they found that trumani was most closely related to the cougar. 

So we now think that the cheetah evolved in the Old World from an ancient cougar-like ancestor, but in North America, one form of ancient cougar begat two species with cheetah-like adaptations.

We call this sort of evolution “parallel evolution” in which two descendants evolve similar characters that are not shared by the common ancestor. It is similar to convergent evolution, which is the same sort of evolution without a direct relationship, but in convergent evolution, the common ancestor is so distant that it almost isn’t worth considering, such as the common ancestor of aardvarks and anteaters.

So North America never had any kind of cheetah. What we had instead were “coursing cougars.”

A piece of me longs to have seen one in the flesh, and for a time, cryptozoologists traveled around Mexico looking for such an animal. There were always references to “onzas” in the colonial literature of Mexico, and even today, onza is the term used for a particular cat in the countryside.  Onza means cheetah in Spanish, and there was always a hope that it referred to these old coursing cougars. 

But every lead led to a jaguarundi, which looks like an oddly-colored cheetah-cougar hybrid in miniature, or to really thin specimens of the cougar species.

So the coursing cougars went the way of the Smilodon and the dire wolf and the woolly mammoth.

But when you realize what was here some 12,000 years ago, it’s hard to not to be caught in flights of fancy. Our current wildlife seem picayune by comparison, but we once had all the majesty of the beasts of Africa south of the Sahara.

We’ve lost all these animals during that great extinction, and now we are looming into another one, this one definitely caused by our own actions.

And the cheetahs of Africa hold on by a thread. Those of Asia have almost gone entirely. They exist only in a narrow range in the north of Iran.  There may not be 50 of them left.

Extinction looms. We know it, and yet we feel so paralyzed by its inevitability, we wonder if we can act, if we can change, before it is too late.

To be a running cat is become a true specialist. To be a courser in a world already full of long-distance running dogs is to flirt with near extinction all the time.

But twice this form of cat evolved and ran long and hard across three continents.

Not a bad gamble in the terms of evolution’s blind whims.

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pronghorns

Our brains like simple answers. We love to see the cause and then the effect, and we constantly look for them in nature.  At one time, we believed that the appearance of comets in the sky would be harbingers of great doom. And even in the past century in my home state, it has long been claimed that the appearance of Mothman in the area around Pt. Pleasant corresponded with the Silver Bridge collapse.

Correlation does not equal causation. Chanticleer, that old rooster of English Medieval lore, believed that his crowing at dawn made the sun rise.  When two variables occur at the same time but don’t have any causal relationship, they are called stochastic. Stochastic is one of my favorite words from graduate school, and even today when someone posits a bogus relationship between two variables, I say “Those are stochastic variables.”  I get some odd looks, but that was the point.

In trying to understand the complex phenomena that comprise evolution, we are constantly looking for these relationships. Some of them make some good sense and are well-supported with the data. We know that predators are the driving force behind making the prey swift and nimble, and we also know that plant-eating animals are the driving force behind the development of thorns and toxic plants.

But sometimes, our desire to see patterns leads us astray.  One example of what may be an erroneous positing of stochastic variables involves one of North America’s most unusual animals.

If one were to go to Wyoming on a hunting trip, there is a good chance that the outfitter will tell you to buy “antelope tags.”  Tags, of course, are licenses that give permission to the hunter to take a particular species, and in Wyoming, there is great interest in the pursuit of antelope.

But the little secret is there are no antelope in Wyoming. Indeed, the only true antelope in the United States are gemsbok that have been introduced to specific part of New Mexico, and Texas game ranches are full of various species of Old World antelope.

But no true antelope is native to the Americas. The animal we call an “antelope” should be more appropriately called “the pronghorn.”  It is not an antelope at all, but it is the last survivor of a lineage of creatures that are much more closely related to the various giraffe species and the okapi.  The pronghorn and its extinct kin are placed in a superfamily of Artiodactyla called Giraffoidea. These animals have bony processes that stick off their heads. In the giraffe and okapi, these are called ossicones and are covered in hair. In the pronghorn, a sheath of keratin grows over the bone. This sheath is shed every year, which leads to the claim that the pronghorn is the only animal that loses its horns every year.

The animal we call a pronghorn is superficially quite similar to what we would call an antelope or gazelle in the Old World.  But these similarities arose through parallel evolution. Both gazelles and pronghorns evolved in the open land where all sorts of cursorial predators hunted them. Predation forced these animals into swiftness and nimbleness.

That part is not much up for debate.

The problem comes with a specific claim about pronghorns.  One odd feature of this species is its speed. The top speed of an adult pronghorn is 55 mph (88.5 km/h). This speed far exceeds any of its predators that were around in historical times. A pronghorn can smoke a pack of wolves or coyotes and can easily outrun a cougar or a bear.

This high speed has vexed science for quite some time, but there has been an attempt to explain how it could evolved using predation as the driving force.

The hypothesis even points to a specific predator.

At one time the cougar lineage was much more diverse than it is now.  Right now, only three cats still exist in this lineage:  the cougar/mountain lion/puma/catamount/painter/panther (all names for one species), the jaguarundi, and the cheetah of Africa and Iran.

But during the Pleistocene, there were long-limbed cats that superficially resembled the cheetahs of the Old World. They were called “American cheetahs,” but analysis of mitochondrial DNA extracted from their fossils revealed they were much more closely related to cougars. Indeed, they were more closely related to cougars than cougars are to jaguarundi, which complicates the whole move to place jaguarundis in the same genus as the cougar. The two extinct American cheetahs are currently classified in the genus Miracinonyx, while the cougar is in Puma and the jaguarundi is in Herpailurus. Because these two American “cheetahs” are closer to the cougar, placing the jaguarundi in Puma creates a paraphyletic genus. This problem could all be solved if we just placed the two American “cheetahs” into Puma, but not everyone agrees with the mitochondrial DNA assessment of their phylogeny.

Let’s just say that the current pronghorn species lived at the same time as these lithe cougars, and it has been suggested that these cheetahs are the driving force behind the evolution of the extreme speed. The person who came up with this suggestion was a pronghorn expert named John Byers. Byers does not claim that these “cheetahs” were the sole force behind the development of speed in pronghorns. Instead, he lists them among a whole guild of running predators that could have placed selection pressures on pronghorns to force them into the evolution of speed.

The claim that these “cheetahs” were the driving force behind pronghorn speed has been picked up on the popular press though. Wildlife writer Dan Flores even made this claim recently on the Joe Rogan Podcast, and one can find countless pieces on the internet (including this blog when I was a lot more naive) that the extinct North American cheetahs are the “but for” cause of the pronghorn’s fleetness.

The problem with this claim is that it leaves out the nuance of the original hypothesis, and what we’re left with is a sort of cartoon version of evolution.

On the blog Laelaps, a great amount of skepticism is leveled at this hypothesis, largely because the popular understanding of how North American cheetahs might have affected pronghorn evolution.

One problem is that no one really knows how the two species of North America cheetah lived:

We don’t know very much about the natural history of either Miracinonyx species. Their skeletons are cheetah-ish, but that’s not nearly enough to pin these carnivores as the inspiration for artiodactyl agility. In fact, the ecological context of Miracinonyx bones hints that these cats were not simply speedy specialists who prowled open grasslands.

In their 1990 study, Van Valkenburgh and collaborators noted that later Miracinonyx bones have been found from Nebraska to Pennsylvania and Florida in deposits which accumulated under varying conditions. These cats were apparently just as at home among coastal savannahs as mountain stream valleys. More recently, at the 2010 Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting, John-Paul Hodnett and coauthors presented a poster about Miracinonyx that frequented caves in prehistoric Grand Canyon, Arizona. There was a distinct lack of fast-running, open-savannah prey animals during the same time period – the researchers noted that the extinct mountain goat Oreamos harringtoni was the most common possibly prey animal in the area. Rather than speeding over the grasslands, Hodnett and colleagues reported, the Grand Canyon Miracinonyx may have lived like snow leopards, bounding down sheer rock faces in pursuit of mountain goats.

This isn’t to say that Miracinonyx never bolted after equally-swift prey. It’s only to point out that we don’t know much about the cat’s ecology, feeding habits, or hunting strategy. There are a few ways we could find out a bit more, though.

Coprolites attributable to Miracinonyx might contain identifiable bone fragments of the cat’s prey. And while such a find is a longshot, perhaps a trackway made by a Miracinonyx running or launching itself into pursuit could tell us about how these cats actually moved. Both lines of evidence suffer from the complexities of accurately attributing a particular trace fossil to a trace-maker, though. Another route may be to compare the isotopic clues in the teeth of Miracinonyx to those of their potential prey, as was recently done for two sabercats and a bear dog found in Spain. By ascertaining where herbivores were feeding, and how geochemical signatures of prey became locked in carnivore teeth, paleontologists could narrow down the preferred habitats and prey of Miracinonyx. Furthermore, a poster presented by Natalia Kennedy and coauthors at the 2012 SVP meeting outlined a new attempt to compare the spine of the modern cheetah to that of Miracinonyx and other extinct cats to see how skeletal anatomy influenced flexibility and lifestyle.

Miracinonyx might have been the reason for the swiftness of pronghorn. False cheetahs and archaic pronghorn overlapped in time, if not habitat, for as much as three million years. But saying Miracinonyx was certainly a speed demon that gave pronghorn a reason to run is only supported by the barest amount of evidence. If we’re going to understand the evolution and natural history of these animals, we must first untangle their histories and the specific details of their ecology. The Just-So story of how the pronghorn got its speed has yet to be tested by the evidence which resides in the fossil record.

So we really don’t know enough about the extinct North American “cheetahs” at all, and we certainly don’t know enough to make claims that they were the driving force behind the evolution of speed in pronghorns.

Further, if one reads Byers’s text on these predators, he does say that these cheetahs were “the principal agents of selection” behind the pronghorn’s speed, but the author does point out that things like dholes, wolves, and various species of Borophaginae could have been part of the mix as well.

Pronghorn don’t just have speed. They have endurance.  Endurance is one way that Old World antelope elude the speed of cheetahs, but the main way they elude them is through agile running maneuvers. Pronghorn are fast, but they don’t have the quick turns of a Thomson’s or dorcas gazelle.

If these North American “cheetahs” ran down their prey in the same way the Old World true cheetahs do, then one would expect the pronghorn to have evolved some of these tricks.

Instead, pronghorn are running machines. They can take off and go and go and go. An animal that evolved to do such a thing likely didn’t evolve to outpace a sprinting cheetah. It likely evolved to outrun endurance runners.

Dholes are known in North America’s fossil record largely from Beringia, but we do have remains of dholes from Mexico. So their distribution in North America was probably more extensive than we might have assumed, but their fossil record is still quite spotty. Dholes run down their prey in long endurance chases, and dhole predation could have been a pretty strong selection pressure on pronghorns to make them fast endurance runners.

But another species could have also provided this pressure, and its presence in North America is well-established. What’s more, it lived in roughly the same areas where pronghorn were common.

This animal was North America’s only hyena, Chasmaporthetes ossifragus. These hyenas were far less like the modern bone-crushing species of hyena. Indeed, they were quite dog-like and are part of a grouping of hyenas that were called “dog-like hyenas.” The only dog-like hyena still in existence is the aardwolf,  which eats almost nothing but termites.  Its extinct relatives, though, were pretty adept predators of ungulates. They are thought to have run down their prey in much the same way dholes and African wild dogs do today.

So it seems that the pronghorn’s speed and endurance are much more likely to have evolved in response to predation from these long-distance running predators.

Further, we really don’t know how early North American wolves hunted their quarry.  Edward’s wolf and Armbruster’s wolf were both pretty common in North America until 300,000 years ago. They may have also hunted in much the same way dholes and African wild dogs do.  We don’t know enough about their natural history either, so we can only speculate.

The truth is we really don’t know why pronghorns are so fast.  It is possible that the North American “cheetahs” were the principal driving force behind the pronghorn’s speed. It is possible, but the evidence still is wanting. Further, there are more likely candidates that should be explored as having some influence on evolution pronghorn predation avoidance behavior.

So it is possible, but right now, it looks like we have two stochastic variables. We need much more evidence for a causal relationship.

And like everything else in evolution, we need to be careful about looking for patterns where they might not exist.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The jaguarundi is not widely known in the United States. However, it is a native species to this country, although it is quite rare and its official native range is limited to the Lower Rio Grande Valley in southeastern Texas.

Although it is roughly the size of a large domestic cat or a small bobcat, it is most closely related to the cougar (the mountain lion, catamount, panther, puma, or whatever sobriquet one wishes to bestow upon it). I have no idea why this particular animal is called a jaguarundi. Perhaps “undi” is a diminutive, and because jaguars and jaguarundis tend to be found in the same habitat–both prefer riparian areas– they were classified together.

However, the current classification is to put the jaguarundi and the cougar within the same genus (Puma). The cougar’s current name is Puma concolor, and the jaguarundi is Puma yagouaroundi. Their next closest relative is the cheetah, and the cheetah technically should be moved into this genus to reflect the relationship. However, the classification of the extinct “American cheetahs” makes this classification tricky. The bulk of the evidence suggests that American cheetahs and the modern cheetah evolved in parallel with each other from a cougar-like ancestor, but there are still those who think that the cheetah evolved in the Americas and the modern cheetah is a descendant of those animals. Because this taxonomic issue hasn’t been settled, there is a general leeriness about putting the cheetah in the Puma genus. I don’t think it particularly matters where the modern cheetah evolved. It is very clear that these two cats are its closest relatives, and if we wish to classify things in terms of phylogeny, the cheetah belongs in the Puma genus with its two American cousins.

However, there is persistent rumor that the American cheetah still lives among us. Long-legged cougars that have been killed in Mexico have been claimed to be this cat.  Within Mexican Spanish there is an idiom known simply as “onza.” Onza is a cognate with the Portuguese word for the jaguar (onça). These words are in turn congnate with the English word “ounce,” which can refer to the lynx– or as it has been in more recent times– to the snow leopard.

In Mexican Spanish, onza refers to the jaguarundi. However, within the cryptozoological community, it is speculated that the actual onza is the long-legged cougar.

The sources that these theorists use is a some rather dubious historical references to cats that were seen by Spanish explorers. The most famous of these is Bernal Diaz del Castillo’s description of two species of “lion” that were found in Montezuma’s menagerie– “one of which resembled a wolf.”  Diaz was with Cortes at the conquest of Mexico, and he wrote about all the strange creatures the Aztecs kept in their zoos. The first accounts of hairless dogs come from this time period.

Many people put a lot of stock in this account as being proof the modern existence of the Ameican cheetah. However, there is no further description of the cat.  No size is given.

Um. I think it is very possible that this reference is to a jaguarundi.

Why?

Jaguarundis do have kind of dog-like features. And what’s more, they come in a gray color phase. They are sometimes called “otter-cats,” because of their unusual head shape. They do vaguely resemble a kind of dog-cat hybrid in the face, and what’s more, they come in a gray color phase. Perhaps this is what the Diaz meant by the “lion” that resembled a wolf.

Of course, there are texts that talk of huge “onzas” attacking people and stock. These are probably jaguars or unusual cougars. As I noted before, onza and the Portuguese word for jaguar are nearly the same word. Indeed, they have the same pronunciation. Spanish and Portuguese are very closely related languages, and within Spain itself, there are regional languages that are closer to Portuguese than Castilian Spanish. The Portuguese were most likely the ones most intimately familiar with the jaguar– their main holding in the New World was Brazil, which was quite full of jaguars.  And it may be from the Portuguese accounts of these that the Spanish settlers– who largely arrived well after the conquest of Mexico–came up with their understanding of fauna of the New World.

And cougars themselves vary greatly in appearance. Those that live in the tropical parts of the Americas are smaller than those that live in the north and south of their range. This species tends to follow Bergmann’s rule almost without exception. Because much of the settlement in Spanish North America was in the tropics, where the cougars were quite small, they would likely be quite alarmed at the encountering larger cougars as they moved north. They likely would think that these larger cats, which did attack people or stock on occasion, were a different species.

These three cats very easily fit the description of any cat called an “onza.”  And because one can easily see how these animals could be called “onza,” one should realize that the evidence for an extant population of North American cheetahs is quite poor. It’s worse than the evidence for bigfoot or UFO’s.

The fact that the Mexicans call jaguarundi “onzas” should have been the first clue.

It’s a mini-cougar. Not an American cheetah.

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Source.

Also check out the Caniformia video to see how the whole order Carnivora evolved from common ancestors that looked like genets or genet/fox hybrids.

He mislabels a few species- snow leopards, clouded leopards, and the ocelot.

And at least one Pantherine cat has hybridized with a “small” cat. The cougar and leopard have produced “pumapards.” Also, modern cheetahs evolved in the Old World, but they do share common ancestry with cougars and jaguarundis. The ancestral cheetah entered the Old World, but it was more like a cougar than a cheetah. However, there were North American cheetahs, but they were more closely related modern cougars and jaguarundis than Old World cheetahs.  The cougar cats have evolved cheetah-like characteristics twice: once in the Old World and once in the New World. The New World “cheetahs” evolved first, but they are not ancestral to the Old World cheetah species.

Despite these little quibbles, this is an excellent video, and it should be watched with the Caniformia video to really understand how dogs, cats, and other Carnivora species evolved.

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