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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The sources that these theorists use is a some rather dubious historical references to cats that were seen by Spanish explorers.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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