The Early-Mid Pleistocene European Jaguar (Panthera gombaszoegensis) was not Actually a Jaguar

During 1938 M. Kretzoi, a paleontologist, studied some unidentified lower fossil teeth and concluded they belonged to an extinct species of jaguar that roamed Europe during the early to mid-Pleistocene. He gave the species the scientific name Panthera gombaszoegensis. Paleontologists long thought this species was ancestral to the American jaguar (P. onca) and some thought it was the same species. A mostly complete skull was finally found in a Belgian sinkhole (the La Belle-Roche fossil site) during 1980, but paleontologists didn’t really study it until recently. They compared this fossil skull with those from extant species of cats in the Panthera genus including lion, leopard, tiger, jaguar, and snow leopard. They concluded P. gombaszoegensis was not a jaguar after all, though the lower teeth were similar. Instead, this species was most closely related to the tiger (P. tigris) and based on the characteristics of the skull they believe it was a sister species to the tiger, having diverged directly from the same common ancestor. This makes sense geographically because its range was much closer to the tiger than the jaguar. P. gombaszoegensis lived from 2 million years BP to 350,000 years BP, and it is thought to have been a generalist predator, taking whatever prey species they could bring down. Lions and leopards expanded their ranges into Europe from Africa about 350,000 years ago and likely ecologically replaced P. gombaszoegensis.

Map showing range of modern tigers, modern jaguars, and the extinct Panthera gombaszoegensis. An anatomical comparison concludes European jaguars were more closely related to modern tigers than jaguars. This makes more sense geographically. The lower image is a map showing fossil localities where this species has been found in Belgium. Image from the below reference.

Skull of Panthera gombaszoegensis. A comparison of this skull with extant species of cats in the Panthera genus suggest it is a sister species of modern tigers, not jaguars. Image also from the below reference.

Paleontologists think the Panthera genus originated in central Asia about 6 million years ago during the late Miocene. The direct ancestor of the jaguar is unknown. The oldest jaguar fossil known was found in a cave in West Virginia and dates to 850,000 years ago. It descended from a species that crossed the Bering land bridge sometime during the early Pleistocene.


Chator, N.; M, Michaud, and V. Fischer

“Not a Jaguar After All: Phylogenetic Affinities and Morphology of the Pleistocene Felid Panthera gombaszoegensis

Papers in Paleontology 2022


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