Most people think of the jaguar as a tropical species of cat that lives in deep jungles. But human persecution is the reason the majority of the world’s remaining population of jaguars lives in remote jungles. Jaguars can only survive in areas where human density is low. Ranchers defending their livestock, and people coveting the big cat’s beautiful spotted coat eliminate jaguars from many areas far outside tropical jungles. The jaguar is probably as adaptable as the Asiatic tiger which ranges into temperate and even boreal forests. Today, jaguars are known to occur in the deserts of northwest Mexico. If they can live in jungles and deserts, surely they could adapt to temperate forests as long as suitable prey was available. The Pleistocene fossil record proves that jaguars once ranged over most of North America. Jaguar fossils have been found as far northwest as Whitman County, Washington and as far northeast as Port Kennedy, Pennsylvania. Across the southeast jaguar fossils are among the most common of the large carnivores found by fossil collectors. Along with dire wolves they were probably a dominant predator in the region’s forests for most of the Pleistocene, being more common than the infamous saber-tooth. So how recently did this dominant predator of the Pleistocene roam North America east of the Mississippi?
Historical range of the jaguar shaded red. A jaguar was possibly killed 1o miles east of the Mississippi River in 1886. John Lawson wrote that he saw a “tyger” in North Carolina circa 1710. He knew the difference between a cougar and a jaguar, so I doubt he was mistaken. The Pleistocene range of the jaguar extended as far north as Washington state and Pennsylvania. I suspect its Holocene range was also greater than range maps indicate.
I believe Indians gradually overhunted most of the megafauna to extinction between 15,000 BP-~7,000 BP, completely eliminating some species from some regions but haphazardly leaving remnant populations in inadvertent refuges until those too were wiped out. Jaguars on average take larger prey than cougars, so the decline in megafauna diversity reduced jaguar populations across much of their former range. Moreover, the Indians directly hunted jaguars for their spotted coat, further reducing their numbers. Still, there is no ecological reason why jaguars couldn’t have persisted in eastern, particularly southeastern, forests, as long as there was plenty of deer. In the mid-1960’s a jaguar escaped from captivity and lived in a Florida marsh near Vero Beach for 2 years until a hunter killed the cat. And deer populations were smaller then than they are today. Jaguars must have been largely absent from pre-settlement eastern forests because the pre-Columbian population density of Indians was just too high. However, male jaguars sometimes roam for up to 500 miles. There was enough wilderness left that a jaguar occasionally could range undetected into the managed woodlands adjacent to Indian towns. (Indians set fire to the forests regularly to improve habitat for game.) Several artifacts do show that eastern and midwestern Indians did know what jaguars were.
A gorget made out of a conch shell with a jaguar engraving. This was found in Missouri.
Jaguar paw prints in a Missouri Cave. Their age is unknown.
The Missouri conch shell gorget undoubtedly represents a jaguar. The conch shell, imported from the coast, suggests Indian trade routes from Benton County, Missouri to the sea but, of course, is not proof jaguars lived in Missouri during the time period. Engraved images of jaguars on 2 bones excavated from a Hopewell burial mound in Ohio date to about 500 AD. One of the bones was of a human. They could have been engraved by a person from west of the Mississippi, but perhaps jaguars occasionally wandered into Ohio then. Two Indian artifacts from Moundsville, Alabama–an effigy pipe and a shell gorget–represent jaguars. Pottery dating to between 1100 AD-1700 AD found in Florida is engraved with images of a cat. The engraving is perforated. The perforations may represent spots, but may also be a design that prevented the pottery from shattering when heated.
John Lawson, an early naturalist explorer (See https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2012/07/27/john-lawsons-voyage-to-carolina-1700-1711/ ), did write that he saw a “tyger” once. He never went west of North Carolina, and he knew the difference between a cougar and a jaguar, so I regard this as probable evidence of a jaguar in North Carolina between 1700-1711. They were rare but present. Here’s his account:
“Tygers are never met withal in the Settlement; but are more to the Westward, and are not numerous on this Side the Chain of Mountains. I once saw one, that was larger than a Panther and seem’d to be a very bold Creature. The Indians that hunt in those Quarters, say, they are seldom met withal. It seems to differe from the Tyger of Asia and Africa.”
A newspaper article from a June 1886 edition of the Donaldsonville Chief, may be the most recent documented proof of a jaguar east of the Mississippi River. A big cat had been killing cattle in Ascension Parish, Louisiana which is 10 miles east of the Mississippi River. Allen Martin and Johnny Walker tracked the big cat down and sicked their dogs on it. The cat killed 3 of the dogs before one of the hunters “laid it low” with a rifle shot. They reported that it was 8 feet long and weighed 250 pounds, and they referred to it as an “American tiger,” not a panther. They were familiar with panthers. This cat was significantly larger than a panther, or cougar. The name American tiger was formerly used for jaguar. Though this probably is an account of a jaguar, curiously there’s no mention of a spotted coat, so it’s not 100% certain. If it is, this means jaguars persisted in Louisiana 26 years later than those in California which were eliminated there by 1860. Jaguars continued to range the big thicket region of eastern Texas until about 1902. An average of 1 was killed annually in south Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico until 1948 when a predator control poisoning program on both sides of the U.S./Mexican border caused their complete extirpation north of the Rio Grande along with Mexican grizzlies and wolves. Within the last decade jaguars have occasionally ranged into New Mexico, but the xenophobic fence built to keep Mexicans from crossing the border will hinder the jaguar’s return as well.
Daggett, Pierre; and Dale Henry
“The Jaguar in North America”
American Antiquity 39 (3) July 1974
“A Possible Occurrence of the Jaguar in Louisiana”
The Southwestern Naturalist 17 (4) 1973
Jaguar killing a caiman.
Port Kennedy Cave, Pennsylvania
In 1871 workers excavated stone from a limestone fissure they named Port Kennedy Cave, later known as bone cave for all the bones they found. This cave in near the historic Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Cope was the first scientist to identify the fossils found here, but over the past centuries dozens of scientists have studied the specimens because it’s an important Irvingtonian-aged site. Based on the species of fossils, they’re estimated to be between 1.5 million-300,000 years old which is the Irvingonian Land Mammal Age. The list of species found here includes Wheatley’s ground sloth, evolutionary ancestor to Jefferson’s ground sloth; Smilodon gracilis which is ancestral to Smilodon fatalis ; the lesser short-faced bear (Arctodus pristinus) ancestral to the giant short-faced bear (Arctodus simus); black bear (Ursus americanus), tapir, peccary, wolverine, skunk, and mastodon. There were a lot of fossils of smaller animals too, but the excavation at this early date was so clumsy they disintegrated into useless fragments. Later, groundwater flooded the site, ending the collection of fossils here. Ehret Magnesium Company dumped asbestos and other debris on the fissure and now it’s buried and lost. I haven’t been able to determined from information on the web whether recent attempts to relocate the site have been successful.
I mention this site because it’s the northeasternmost known pre-historic occurrence of the jaguar. Fragmentary remains of a probable jaguar were found in Washington State, making that the northwesternmost locality known of a pre-historic jaguar, but a complete jaguar skeleton dating to 38,600 BP was found in an Oregon cave where a 50,000 year old grizzly skeleton was also found. That is the oldest grizzly bear fossil known in North America.