A mysterious small and elusive wild cat
A small wild cat, not much larger than the average house cat, the jaguarundi eludes us humans in many ways. Unbeknownst to this wild creature, our species can’t seem to decide who and what it really is. So we have created many names for the animal, changing its label depending on place and time. All the while, the jaguarundi smiles and eludes us.
This member of the feline family is one of the smallest and oddest looking. The size of a large house cat, it has the face of a miniature cougar (aka puma, panther, mountain lion) topped with little rounded nice-kitty ears. Its slender long body (22-31″) and tail (14-24″) is supported by short legs (stands at ~11″ at the shoulder). Indeed, the mammal resembles an odd hybridized version of a house cat and dwarfed cougar whose ear and leg development was arrested within a week after birth. In fact, the species has many times been mistaken for a large weasel. One wonders what circumstances selected for such odd paired combinations. Unless the other cats are the odd ones.
The jaguarundi is a New World cat, native to forested and brushy regions, especially those near water, from South America to the southwestern United States. Rare north of Mexico, it is considered endangered in Texas, although sightings have been documented in SW Texas, Alabama and part of Florida. It is also known as the ‘otter-cat’ because of its otter-like appearance and swimming ability. In fact, early German zoologists mistook the animal for a cousin of the weasel, referring to it as the ‘weasel cat’.
The name jaguarundi is interesting for several reasons. Many people recognize the root name, jaguar, which is one of the largest New World members of the feline family. This cat once roamed from the U.S.-Mexican border southward to Patagonia, Argentina. It is now almost extinct in the northern part of its original range and survives in reduced numbers in remote areas of Central and South America. Similar to the jaguarundi, the largest known population exists in the Amazon rainforest.
The names jaguarundi and jaguar have similar origins. Not surprisingly, because the two species inhabit the same region in South America. Before the arrival of the Portuguese to Brazil in the mid-1500’s, the two principal indigenous groups were the Tupí and the Guaraní. The former mainly lived along the coast of Brazil and in the Amazon rainforest. The Guaraní lived further inland, inhabiting what is now Paraguay, southern Brazil, and parts of Uraguay, Bolivia and Argentina. The Tupi-Guaraní language is the most widely distributed traditional language of South America and is a hybrid of the older Guaraní and Old Tupí. In fact, it is the official language of Paraguay.
A fusion of the languages of the Spanish-speaking conquerors of South and Central America and of the indigenous peoples has given rise to an interesting evolutionary tree of name etymology. Many names of flora and fauna are often attributed to Spanish origin. However, the earlier conquerors merely adopted and adapted native names to their own language to try and make sense of them, and probably because they were easier to pronounce. For example, words like jaguar, tapioca, jacaranda, anhinga, carioca, and capoeira are of Tupí–Guaraní origin. An exploration of plant name origins will commonly end up with root words of the Tupí and/or Guarní language.
The first known use of the name jaguar was 1604. It probably originated with the Portuguese and was derived from from Old Tupí, jawára. Similarly, jaguarundi is American Spanish, first used in 1885, and derived from from Old Guarani yaguarund-i and akin to the Tupi jawarund or Old Tupi, yawaum’di. The jaguarundi is commonly known in Spanish as leoncillo, gato colorado, gato moro, león brenero, onza, and yaguarundí. It is also called gato-mourisco, eirá, gato-preto, and maracajá-preto in Portuguese.
The jaguarundi wears coats of several colors, and several scientific names. With two color morphs, dark (black and brownish gray) and light (reddish brown), they were thought to be two different species. Local villagers often refer to these cats based on their color: “jaguarundi” for the darker coat and “eyra” for the reddish coat. (The Tupi name was eirara or irara; ‘eyra’ is an American Spanish and Portuguese name.) Thus early taxonomists separated them, assigning Felis eyra (1814) or Herpailurus eyra (1858) to the reddish morphs. However, these are the same species and both color morphs may be found in the same litter.
Likewise, the taxonomical nomenclature assigned to this wildcat have gone through several renditions, some concurrently. Various authorities have placed the jaguarundi in their own genus (Herpailurus) or with the other cats (Felis). A French naturalist, Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (1772-1844), assigned the small cat the genus and species names Puma yagouaroundi in 1803. A follower of Lamarckian evolutionary theory, Saint-Hilaire’s assignment was based on comparative anatomy, paleontology, and embryology.
Use of Felis yagouaroundi has been attributed to two different authorities. However, the earliest attribution was given to Bernard Germain de Lacépède (1756-1825), a French naturalist, in 1809. Attributes to assigning the jauguarundi to the genus Herpailurus vary from Lacépède (again, 1809) to Nikolai Severtzov (1827-1885), a Russian explorer and naturalist (attributed to year 1858). Which of these men originally used this genus name might be lost to historical confusion, but this genus was still in use in 1919. Why Lacépède would use two genus names concurrently is beyond me.
Sometimes things come full circle, even if it takes a few centuries. Depending on the source of reference and information, anyone searching for the scientific name of the jaguarundi will see all three genus names in use today. Interestingly, modern nomenclature again placed in the genus Puma by Johnson et al. (in 2006) and Eizirik et al. (in 2008). Recent genetic studies (mitochondrial DNA analysis) suggests that the puma (aka the cougar/mountain lion) and the jaguarundi are more closely related to each other and other felines in the genus Puma than the domestic cat, which shared the genus Felis. Additional research shows that the jaguarundi is closely related to the much larger and heavier cougar as evident by its similar genetic structure and chromosome count.
For those interested in the paleobiology of the New World felines, according to the 2006 genomic study of Felidae an ancestor(s) of today’s leopard, lynx, puma, and Felis lineages migrated across the Bering land bridge into the Americas approximately 8-8.5 million years ago. It is proposed that those lineages subsequently diverged in that order. This and other recent studies have indicated that the cougar and jaguarundi are next most closely related to the modern cheetah of Africa and western Asia, but that relationship is still debated. It has been suggested that ancestors of the cheetah diverged from the Puma lineage in the Americas and migrated back to Asia and Africa, while other research suggests the cheetah diverged in the Old World itself. Consequently, feline migration to the Americas remains unclear.
So, what’s in a Name? Well, that is the subject for another post. As readers can infer, names can be very complex and more confusing than not. Regardless, the jaguarundi, or the leoncillo – the little lion- remains elusive in name and reality. Perhaps that is best for it’s survival.