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jaguarundi

One must be very careful using studies of mitochondrial DNA to make conclusions about the natural history of animals. The DNA is inherited matrilinearly. It does not follow the entire genetic legacy of an organism.

However, it can point to the possibility that our understanding of taxonomy is incorrect, and these studies have pointed to multiple cryptic species in what we once thought was only a single one. Gray foxes and black-backed jackals have deep divergences in mitochondrial DNA lineages in populations that are not contiguous, which suggests that there are more species than the single one currently recognized.

Of course, these findings do require more study to figure out if these divergences are reflected in the nuclear DNA. But these studies are just the beginning.

Recently, I came across this paper from PLoS ONE that was published 2017. It looked the mitochondrial DNA of the jaguarundi, a neotropical cat that is most closely related to the cougar. It does range into the United States, but it hasn’t been seen here in decades.

This species has been a bit of problem for molecular biologists, because it is been quite difficult to figure out subspecies. There is little correlation between mitochondrial DNA sequences and morphology, which has made classifying them quite difficult.

But the authors discovered a rather unusual discovery. Using calculations of mutation rate, they found that the two main clades of jaguarundi diverged 3.2 million years ago. The same metric found that jaguarundis and cougars diverged 3.9 million years ago, and the divergence between the two clades of jaguarundi happened earlier than the divergence between lions and common leopards and the divergence between the tiger and the snow leopard.

This discovery does suggest that there at least two species of jaguarundi, which are morphologically indistinguishable.  Of course, the authors make it clear that more evidence from nuclear DNA needs to be included in the analysis, but the discovery does suggest that our classification of the jaguarundi as a single species may be faulty.

 

 

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Not a jaguarundi

A few days ago, I came across a story about a jaguarundi sighting in New Mexico, and I have to say I was pretty excited. I have been following accounts jaguarundis north of Mexico, and I have had great hopes that they will finally have a breeding population in the United States again soon.

Jaguarundis historically ranged into Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, but we have no breeding population. A few years ago, there was talk of them being restored to South Texas, but I’ve heard nothing new about that project. My guess is it fell apart as the new austerity regime took over.

Jaguarundis have been known in the fossil record from Florida, and of course, there are countless sightings of jaguarundis in Florida and in Alabama as well.  None have been confirmed, of course, and if they were discovered in that part of the country, they would be the first ones known in historical times. And they definitely would have descended from “released captive animals.  But the current thinking is that most of these Southeastern jaguarundi are misidentified domestic cats, bobcats, and even otters.

After hearing that story about the possible jaguarundi in New Mexico, I went on a Google safari for potential sightings in the US.

Most of them were quite weak sauce, and I have to say that people really do need to look carefully at photos before posting them

One of the most egregious is this one by a blogger called “Texas Cryptid Hunter,”  who claims that the below trail camera photo is of a jaguarundi in Missouri or Mississippi.

Texas fake jaguarundi gray fox

That animal sure does look like some kind feline, right?

Well, it’s not feline at all.

It’s a gray fox. There are two big identifying features that say this is a gray fox in a subtropical summer coat.  The masking is very unjaguarundi-like, but it is very much like a gray fox. But that alone isn’t enough to scream gray fox at me.

Check out the tail. There is a black stripe running down the tail. No other carnivoran on this continent has that feature, and jaguarundis certainly don’t.

Gray foxes and their cousins, the island foxes of the Channel Islands of California, have this feature.

Further, notice that the deer and the creature seem to be eating the same thing. My guess is that the trail camera was set out near a deer feeder, which shoots out corn. This is a common practice where it’s legal, especially in late summer. It allows the deer hunter to figure out which bucks are developing the best antlers.

A little known fact about gray foxes is they are quite omnivorous, and they particularly like to eat corn from deer feeders.

My guess is the deer and fox were eating corn on the ground, and because the fox is in summer pelt and is holding its ears close to its head, it looks a lot like some kind of cat.

It’s an easy mistake to make. I initially thought the first gray fox I saw running in the broad daylight towards me was a cougar!

Cougars and jaguarundis are close relatives, and compelling molecular data suggest that we ought to classify them in the same genus, which I tend to do. So I can see where someone might see a gray fox and think it’s a jaguarundi.

I am friendly with the cryptozoology community, but I do know there is a tendency among people who “believe” in “cryptids” to be hold fast to bad pieces of evidence. I don’t think there is compelling evidence for bigfoot or long-necked dinosaurs in the Congo, but I’ve run into people who absolutely know these creatures exist.

So it is really hard to have a conversation with people who have decided that a piece of evidence is “the truth.”

I also know there are some sportsman types who will tell me there is no way that can be a fox.  If you can find me a photo of a jaguarundi with a black tail stripe like the animal in the photo, I will stand corrected.

You won’t find it.

I still think that jaguarundis belong in the US, but if that asshole orangutan who thinks he runs this place gets his way, we will have big ol’ wall that keeps them stuck down in Mexico.

And we won’t have a chance at restoring jaguarundis to our southern border country.

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Cross-eyed jaguarundi

Eyra=jaguarundi:

Source.

Cross eyes used to be a common problem in Siamese cats, but it’s been largely bred out of them.

My guess is this cat has a genetic defect. I seriously doubt that there are many jaguarundis available in Germany, and those that are found there are likely derived from a very small population.

 

 

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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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