The Mystery Cat of Pleistocene Georgia

Most small species of cats are adept tree climbers, but the margay (Leopardus wiedii) excells. It hunts, copulates, and raises its young in trees, making it as arboreal as a monkey or squirrel.

The margay is about the size of a large house cat.  It is an arboreal species.

The margay is able to climb head first down trees, and its wrists are built much like those of a squirrel’s.  Click on the below link to the youtube video of a margay.  Note how it can hang upside down using just its rear paws.  Note also its athletic ability to leap from tree limb to tree limb.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ef129AsFfMA

The margay is a nocturnal hunter, preying upon birds, birds’ eggs, frogs, lizards, rodents, monkeys, and probably bats.  They also eat fruit.  Like tigers, they use audible mimicry to lure prey.  They’ve been observed imitating the cries of a baby monkey to attract parent monkeys to their doom. (Tigers imitate the mating bugle of elk.)  Not all prey is defenseless, however.  Brazilian squirrels gang together and drive margays away.

Today, the margay ranges throughout Central and South America, but fossil evidence of a margay-like cat has been found from 12 sites in Florida and 2 in Georgia.  Jaw bones of this mystery cat come from Ladds in Bartow County, Georgia and the Isle of Hope site in Chatham County near Savannah–evidence this species occurred throughout the state during the Pleistocene.  The fossils from all the sites where this species has been found likely date from a warm interglacial period.  Some scientists think these fossils represent an extinct species (Leopardus amnicola), while others consider it an extinct, large subspecies of margay (Leopardus wiedii amnicola).  The modern margay requires dense forest habitat, and it’s likely this species or subspecies did too, probably explaining why its fossils are found in deposits dating to interglacial periods.  During interglacials forested habitats expanded.

Marshall Forest 042

Sketch of the jaw bone of a cat found at the Ladds fossil site.  Click to enlarge.  Dr. Clayton Ray thought this specimen was most like the jaw bone of a jaguarundi, but other scientists have concluded it’s from a cat that was more like a margay.  This page is from the below referenced paper authored by Dr. Ray.

Marshall Forest 043

Photo of a jaw bone of a cat found at the Isle of Hope site near Savannah, Georgia. Click to enlarge.  Every measurement of this specimen falls within the size range of both margay and jaguarundi.  This means it can’t be conclusively identified.  It’s slightly smaller than most specimens identified as Leopardus amnicola.  Page from the below referenced study authored by Dr. Hulbert.

The ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) is about the size of a bobcat or maybe a little larger is some cases.  Unlike the margay, it’s primarily a ground dweller, though it can climb trees.  It mostly feeds upon rodents.  Today, ocelots range throughout Central and South America and rarely into south Texas and Arizona.  In the 19th century, they were found in Louisiana and Arkansas, and fossil evidence of this cat has been found from 2 sites in Florida, also probably dating to a warm interglacial.

The ocelot and margay shared a common ancestor.  It’s likely that some individuals of this ancestral species preferred hunting on the ground and their decendents evolved into ocelots, while other individuals preferred hunting in the trees and their decendents evolved into margays.  Males that were good tree climbers were more likely to meet females that were good tree climbers, and they passed on the beneficial genes that gave them their natural ability.

The ocelot can grow to a size as heavy as 40 pounds.  Also used to range into southeastern North America.

The jaguarundi (Puma yagaouroundi) is a 3rd species of small neotropical cat.  It was formerly classified in its own genus by some scientists and lumped in the Leopardus genus by others, but genetic studies suggest it is closely related to the cougar (Puma concolor).  I hypothesize that an isolated population of cougars began specializing in small prey to avoid competition with larger carnivores such as jaguars, saber-tooths, and lions.  This population then evolved into jaguarundis.  Studies show cougars regularly take smaller prey than jaguars, and there isn’t much overlap in their prey selection.  In some locality with scarce prey, competition may have forced the ancestral population to take even smaller prey.  Today, the jaguarundi preys upon birds, rodents, opposums, small species of deer (brocket), reptiles, and insects.  It eats fruit as well.  It ranges throughout Central and South America and rarely south Texas.  100 years ago, some were introduced to Florida, and a small population may still exist there.  Reported sightings continue.

The jaguarundi may have ranged into southeastern North America as well.  It’s also known as the otter cat due to its cylindrical shape.  It’s closely related to the cougar but is about 10% its size.

It’s evident at least 2 species of neotropical cats colonized southeastern North America during warm climatic phases of the Pleistocene.  I hypothesize that they continued to live in the region until approximately 28,000 BP.  Dense forests remained widespread in the region until then.  Between ~28,000 BP-~15,000 BP prairies, desert scrub, and spruce woodlands replaced the kinds of forests margays and ocelots prefer, though it’s possible they persisted near the coast where ocean currents kept the climate from deteriorating.  If it wasn’t for man, I think ocelots and margays would have recolonized the south.  Fossils of margays have been found in Texas, and they date to 4400 BP, showing they were more widespread recently.  However, native Americans coveted their beautiful coats, and I suspect human hunters prevented the re-expansion of their range.

References:

Hulbert, Richard; and Ann Pratt

“New Pleistocene (Rancholabrean) Vertebrate Faunas from Coastal Georgia”

Journal of Vertebrate Zoology 18 (2) June 1998

Ray, Clayton

“Pleistocene Mammals from Ladds, Bartow County, Georgia”

Georgia Academy of Science Bulletin 25 (3) 1967

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4 Responses to “The Mystery Cat of Pleistocene Georgia”

  1. jamesrobertsmith Says:

    I was reading about native mammals of the Patagonia region of South America. What surprised me was the relative lack of terrestrial mammals in that part of the world. There just aren’t very many! The cougar does exist there (southernmost part of its range) but I didn’t see any of the other South American cats on the list of mammals native to that area.

  2. markgelbart Says:

    Patagonia has probably suffered a lot of extinction at the hands of man. I think most of it is open country. Little jungle cats couldn’t live there.

  3. The Isle of Hope Fossil Site in Chatham County, Georgia | GeorgiaBeforePeople Says:

    […] the most mysterious mammal to have lived in Georgia 100,000 years ago was a small cat.  (See https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2013/05/09/the-mystery-cat-of-pleistocene-georgia/).  A jaw bone of this species was found at this site but not enough skeletal material has been […]

  4. Pleistocene Fossils Found in Southwestern Georgia and Southeastern Alabama | GeorgiaBeforePeople Says:

    […] Other Pleistocene remains have been recovered from at least a dozen small creeks that flow through the upper coastal plain of Alabama and Mississippi.  They include mammoth, horse, tapir, bison, white-tailed deer, long-nosed peccary, flat-headed peccary, giant beaver (Casteroides sp.), pampathere (a 300 lb armadillo), Jefferson’s ground sloth, Harlan’s ground sloth, gray fox, coyote, Florida spectacled bear (Tremarctos floridanus), giant short-faced bear (Arctodus simus), black bear, margay cat (Leopardus wiedii), and indigo snake.  The margay cat currently ranges throughout tropical forests in Central and South America, but it formerly lived in southeastern North America.  Fossil remains of the margay have been found at 2 sites in Georgia, 12 in Florida, and 3 in Mississippi and Alabama.  The latter 3 are not listed in the Paleobiology database, and I was unaware of these specimens when I wrote a blog post about this species (See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2013/05/09/the-mystery-cat-of-pleistocene-georgia/). […]

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