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.
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.
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)
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