Posts Tagged ‘Panthera onca’

How Recently did the Jaguar (Panthera onca) Roam Eastern North America?

September 26, 2012

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.

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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 ), 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

Nowak, Ronald

“A Possible Occurrence of the Jaguar in Louisiana”

The Southwestern Naturalist 17 (4) 1973

See also:

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.


Pleistocene Fossil Felid Ratios from the University of Florida Database

January 16, 2012

I followed the same procedure from last week’s study but counted the number of cat fossils in the University of Florida’s Natural History Museum database instead of dog fossils.  I only counted fossils dating from the Rancholabrean Land Mammal Age 300,000 BP-11,000 BP.  The results may be off a little because I was scrolling down while looking at a computer screen.  The results may also be misleading because many specimens may come from just 1 individual.   Nevertheless, I think the data reveals a good estimate of the ratio of species composition during the Pleistocene.

Listed on the University of Florida Museum of Natural History database, I counted 46 jaguar (Panthera onca) specimens, 21 giant panther (Panthera atrox) specimens, 42 saber-tooth (Smilodon fatalis) specimens, 6 scimitar-tooth (Dinobastis serum) specimens, 41 cougar (Puma concolor) specimens, 46 bobcat (Lynx rufus) specimens, 12 river cat (Leopardus amnicola or weidii) specimens and 1 ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) specimen.

The results are similar to those reported by the amateur fossil collectors who post on the fossil forum.  The most significant difference between their reports and database information is abundance of jaguar to saber-tooth abundance.  Amateur fossil collectors claim jaguar fossils are much more common in Florida than saber-tooth, though they do collect the latter and some have found scimitar-tooth specimens as well which are rare in the database.  It may be that the UF database includes a skeleton of a saber-tooth accounting for multiple specimens from 1 individual.

Dire wolves accounted for 64 specimens in my previous study, making them 33% more common, at least in the fossil record than any single species of big cat.  Overall, big cats combined outnumbered dire wolves 156 to 64, making large felines more than twice as common as dire wolves.  Perhaps there was less competition among species of canids, but more among felids.

Pleistocene habitats favorable to various species of big and small cats varied widely.  Mesic oak forests and cypress swamps, which expanded during warm interglacials and interstadials, favored jaguars, river cats, and ocelots.  Jaguars are adabtable enough to live in desertlike brush conditions which were common during cold arid stadials.  Cougars and bobcats thrive in many different types of environments.  The exact environments favored by giant panthers, saber-tooths, and scimitar-tooths is unknown, but it’s likely they were capable of adapting to many different ecotones.

Saber-tooths were evidently one of the most common large carnivores south of the ice sheets in North America.  They were actually no larger than a modern day jaguar.  Saber-tooths never colonized Eurasia, but a distant cousin, the scimitar-tooth had close relatives that did live from the southern tip of Africa to Alaska.  Scimitar-tooths also had longer front legs but these were more slender than those of the saber-tooth.  Their fangs were also smaller and more curved.  In Africa, Asia, and Europe scimitar-tooths became extinct much earlier than saber-tooths did in America.  I suspect they never learned to fear man, explaining their earlier extinction.  I suggest fanged cats didn’t often back down from anything.  Scimitar-tooths probably colonized southeastern North America during stadials when grasslands expanded due to dry climate which in turn caused an increase in the populations of ungulates. 

Giant panthers probably resembled large maneless lions.  True lions did live in Alaska and across Eurasia.  But south of the ice sheets in North America, the common ancestor split into 2 different species–Panthera atrox and Panthera onca.

8 cat 10 Biggest Cats in the History

This image comparing Pleistocene jaguars with modern jaguars may be a slight exaggeration, but jaguars did grow bigger during the Pleistocene because they preyed on larger mammals and had more competition among carnivores.

I’ll write more about the presence of margays and ocelots in Pleistocene Florida in my next blog entry.

Here are some related articles about big cats from my archives.

“Panthera atrox! What Kind of Cat was it?”–

“Why did fanged cat have sloping backs and large forelimbs?”–

“Two new studies of saber-tooths.”–

“Cougars vs. jaguars”–

Fossiling in Florida by Mark Renz

May 20, 2010

The best chapter in Fossiling in Florida: A Guide for Diggers and Divers by Mark Renz is the one called Prehistoric Portraits–33 pages of nice black and white photographs of fossils that a fossil hunter would likely find in Florida and other southern states.  This makes the book a handy indispensible reference.  Its arrival in my mail box was timely–next week I’m going on an actual fossil-hunting expedition to the low country of South Carolina.  I found a site there readily accessible to the public where late Rancholabrean fossils (over 30 species) have turned up, mixed in with Pliocene-aged marine fossils and shark’s teeth.  In next week’s blog entry I’ll have lots of interesting photographs, hopefully of some specimens I discover myself.

Now back to the book.

Mr. Renz snorkles the backwaters of Florida’s alluvial fossiliferous deposits, feeling his way through sediment that is much richer in prehistoric treasure than that of most other states in North America.  His accounts of avoiding alligators and speeding boats, while searching for fossils, are some of the most entertaining parts of the book.  His wife’s sketches also add to the charm of this work.

One of the reasons I bought the book was because I thought it was self-published, and I wanted to see how another non-academic, self-published author tackled a similar subject to that of my book.  I didn’t know the University of Florida Press published this book.  I found his website–  He has two other books: Megalodon: Hunting the Hunter and Giants in the Storm.  Those must be the ones he self-published.  I’ll have to check those out too.  The cover for the latter looks outstanding.

Anyway, stay tuned for next week’s blog entry.  I’m really looking forward to the upcoming rare opportunity to find some fossils.


This week, I’ve been obsessed with a new paper I came across that was published last fall.  (I’ve only read the abstract.) Two scientists did a thorough study of Panthera leo atrox skulls.  They determined that the North American lion was more like a giant jaguar, or a completely different species altogether than a lion.  The skull does resemble that of a lion, but the lower jaw was more like that of a jaguar.  They theorize that when the glacier cut Beringia and Eurasia off from the North America that the large Panthera cat south of the glacier evolved into two species–Panthera atrox and Panthera onca.  The species of big cats from the Panthera genus in America then consisted of a giant jaguar and a large jaguar.  Panthera onca augusta (the Pleistocene subspecies jaguar)  is considered large compared to modern jaguars, but Panthera atrox was gigantic weighing on average 25% larger than modern African lions.

I think this study makes sense.  If specimens of an extinct cat are consistently that much larger than living representatives of the presumed species, than the chances are good it was a different species.  Moreover, atrox had a larger brain capacity.  This is evidence it may have  hunted in prides like African lions, but we’ll never know for sure.  Based on where most of its skeletel material has been found, it seems to have preferred open country.  The large size of the males would have made it difficult for this species to hunt singly.  At the very least, they must have hunted in pairs.

I’m going to try to get my hands on this paper, so I can give a more detailed discussion in a future blog entry.