The Old World Jaguar

Unless you know your big cats particularly well, it can be difficult to separate the leopard (Panthera pardus) and the jaguar (Panthera onca). Both are large, lithe animals with black rosettes on a yellowish background coat. Put them beside each other and it can be difficult to say which is which. In the wild it’s much easier- the leopard is only found in the old world, and the jaguar in the new world (particularly South America). There are some other subtle clues: the jaguar tends to have rosettes with central spots, while the leopard does not. The jaguar is a more powerful cat than the leopard, known to hunt capybara and kill them by penetrating the skull with their canine teeth. Perhaps paradoxically there have been only a handful of recorded fatal encounters between humans and jaguars in all of recorded history, while the leopard is feared throughout its range as the most cunning and lethal maneater- feared even above the lion and tiger. Given their superficial similarity in appearance it is perhaps no surprise to learn that leopard and jaguar (and the lion) share a common ancestor in the recent geological past.

Panthera onca. Photographed in Argentina by Lea Maimone. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Panthera onca, Jaguar photographed in Argentina by Lea Maimone. Image via Wikimedia Commons


Panthera pardus, African leopard. Photographed in Botswana by Danh via Wikimedia Commons

What may be a surprise is that the probable ancestor of the jaguar roamed happily over Europe and even into England! This interesting fossil species is known as Panthera [onca] gombaszoegensis or sometimes colloquially as the European jaguar. It has been found at the Pleistocene sites of West Runton (alongside the famous mammoth), Swanscombe, and Westbury. It’s also been found in the deposits at the bottom of the North Sea, washing up on the shore of the reclaimed polders of the Netherlands.

Italian Panthera gombaszoegensis skull. Photograph by Ghedoghedo, image via Wikimedia Commons

Italian Panthera gombaszoegensis skull. Photograph by Ghedoghedo, image via Wikimedia Commons

What was the European jaguar like? All evidence points to a cat smaller than a lion but larger than a modern jaguar. During the European Pleistocene it was part of a diverse clade of apex felids, alongside Panthera spelaea, Homotherium latidens, and Panthera pardus. Niche partitioning probably ensured that while the lion and scimitar cat prowled the open plains and the leopard flitted between wood and glade, P. gombaszoegensis was like a ghost in the deep forest. Circumstantial evidence from the study of stable isotopes from the Spanish site of Venta Micena places the Eurojaguar as a hunter of wild ovibovids, fallow deer, and giant deer within the closed canopy. Not dissimilar to the modern Amazonian jaguar preying upon deer, tapir, and peccary.

Based on the fossil evidence a likely scenario for the evolution of the Eurojaguar is as follows. The ancestor of the lion, leopard, and jaguar probably lived in Asia. Sometime after the late Pliocene the jaguar branch split off to colonise Eurasia while the ancestor of the lion and leopard invaded Africa. While roaming the old world, the Eurojaguar made use of one of the periodic appearances of Beringia to enter the Nearctic. Once in the new world the flooding of the Bering strait and the appearance of massive glaciers over Canada helped to isolate the American populations, allowing them to evolve along their own trajectory into the jaguar we know today. Although the modern jaguar is smaller than gombaszoegensis, this was not the case in the Pleistocene. Back then, truly enormous jaguar are known from the north and south of their range. Finds of the giant Panthera onca augusta have been dug up in Nebraska, Florida and Washington state. A south American giant jaguar has also been described as Panthera onca mesembrina, known from various caves in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. Alas, these giant forms all went extinct by the beginning of the Holocene.

Will the jaguar ever return to its old haunts in North America? Recent sightings of jaguars in Arizona suggest that the largest new world cat could be gaining some territory (or alternatively, getting pushed out of its usual range in Mexico). The saga of celebrity AZ jaguar “Macho B” has ensured that the species has been in the public eye. Despite the subterfuge that surrounded his initial capture and radio-collaring, and the tragedy of his eventual euthanisation, there is still hope that other jaguars have set up a permanent base in the South-West US.

Written by Ross Barnett (@DeepFriedDNA)

Further Reading:

Garla, R. C., E. Z. Setz, and N. Gobbi. “Jaguar (Panthera onca) Food Habits in Atlantic Rain Forest of Southeastern Brazil.” Biotropica 33, no. 4 (2001): 691-96. [Abstract]

Hemmer, H., R. -D. Kahlke, and T. Keller. “Panthera onca gombaszoegensis (Kretzoi, 1838) Aus Den Fruhmittelpleisotzanen Mosbach-Sanden (Wiesbaden, Hessen, Deutschland) – Ein Beitrag Zur Kenntnis Der Cariabilitat Und Verbreitungsgeschichte Des Jaguars.” Neues Jahrbuch für Geologie und Paläontologie 229, no. 1 (2003): 31-60.[Abstract]

Hemmer, H., R. D. Kahlke, and A. K. Vekua. “The Jaguar- Panthera onca gombaszoegensis (Kretzoi, 1938) (Carnivora:Felidae) in the Late Lower Pleistocene of Akhalkalaki (South Georgia; Transcaucasia) and Its Evolutionary and Ecological Significance.” Geobios 34 (2001): 475-86.[Abstract]

Kurtén, B. “Pleistocene Jaguars in North America.” Commentations Biologicae 62 (1973): 1-23.

Marciszak, A. “Presence of Panthera gombaszoegensis (Kretzoi, 1938) in the Late Middle Pleistocene of Bisnik Cave, Poland, with an Overview of Eurasian Jaguar Size Variability.” Quaternary International 326-327 (2014): 105-13.[Abstract]

Palmqvist, P., J. A. Perez-Claros, C. M. Janis, and D. R. Grocke. “Tracing the Ecophysiology of Ungulates and Predator-Prey Relationships in an Early Pleistocene Large Mammal Community.” Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology (2008). [Abstract]



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16 Responses to The Old World Jaguar

  1. kerberos616 says:

    Reblogged this on Kerberos616.

  2. Digiomatics says:

    Reblogged this on Digiomatic.

  3. newteach929 says:

    Reblogged this on newTeachrtips and commented:
    I am very interested in having a safari theme in my future classroom 🙂 and this blog will be fun to show ancestral animals from safari! I liked this post because it is about the jaguar’s predecessor, which is interesting to me.

  4. themonkseal says:

    Reblogged this on themonkseal.

  5. Josh says:

    Thank you for writing this post, and for the links at the bottom! One of these days I want to write a post on my own blog about the jaguar’s evolutionary history, and this will save me a good deal of research time. The jaguar’s journey is a fascinating one, and hopefully it’s far from over.

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  10. Zimriel says:

    I recommend the Old World Jaguar be name the Jagular, in honour of Christopher Robin and A A Milne.

  11. Pingback: G(e)nomic Wisdom | TwilightBeasts

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