versión On-line ISSN 1666-0536
Mastozool. neotrop. v.15 n.1 Mendoza ene./jun. 2008
The legend of the mexican onza
Ernesto Alvarado Reyes
School of Biological Sciences, The University of Edinburgh, Michael Swann Building, The King's Buildings, Mayfield Road, Edinburgh EH9 3JR Scotland, United Kingdom.<firstname.lastname@example.org>
Felines have always been the subject of numerous legends and folktales. One such story is the onza from Mexico. Onza is a name given to numerous species of Mexican felines. It can be argued that apart from the bobcat (Lynx rufus) and introduced feral cats (Felis catus), all other extant species of Mexican wild felines are called "onza" in different regions of Latin America, which might even be the case within Mexico. However, there is no region in which more than one species is called onza. Unfortunately, it is very common that one species receives two different names in the same locality. The name onza is usually applied in this sense. This leads to the common misunderstanding that there are two different species that in fact are just one.
Even though the bobcat is never called onza, the word comes from the Latin lynx, lyncis. Onza formerly meant cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) to Spaniards. During the time of the conquest of the New World Pre-Columbian kingdoms, Spanish invaders started to call all new known felines by Spanish names corresponding to Old World species, causing great confusion up to present times (Alvarez del Toro, 1977).
The word onza in Mexico, when applied together with another common name to refer to the same species in the same locality, is used to distinguish certain varieties or individuals with recessive traits that make them look different to most individuals of their population. Sometimes, as the rarest phenotype that is called onza is the less frequently found, incredible stories far from reality are created around it.
Taxonomic mistakes around the word onza are extremely common. The main species in which such case occurs is the jaguarundi (Puma yaguarondi). When the jaguarundi was found by Don Félix de Azara, he thought he had discovered two different biological species. They were christened as Felis yaguarondi Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, 1803, now in the genus Puma, and Felis eyra Fischer von Waldheim, 1814, now a subspecies of the former. However, what we now call P. yaguarondi eyra is not what XIX century naturalists called F. eyra. F. eyra was thought to live throughout all the distribution range of P. yaguarondi as a different sympatric species (Alston, 1882), P. yaguarondi eyra refers to some South American populations of the species that share certain traits and a common ancestor. The confusion arises from the fact that certain jaguarundis have different characteristics due to intraspecific variation in all subspecies, such as coat color. The conclusion arrived at by those early naturalists was the same as that of some Mexican farmers and hunters. This is why the species is also referred to as onza (Leopold, 1959), usually, identified by locals as a different species than the jaguarondi with more conventional traits.
The other taxonomic mistake, although less common, is more noteworthy, as it occurred in Sinaloa, nearer to the United States of America than the southern states where the jaguarundi is diagnosed as two different species. Many enthusiasts, motivated by studies of paranormal phenomena, the discovery of large animals unknown to science in times when it was thought all major vertebrates were discovered, such as the okapi (Okapia johnstoni), or discovery of species belonging to groups long thought extinct such as coelacanths (Latimeria spp.), are interested in finding new examples of that sort (Heuvelmans, 1955). Cryptozoologists, as they call themselves, knew of a legendary big cat that haunted the Sierra Madre Occidental. As in the case of onza jaguarundis, it was diagnosed by farmers as a species different from all felines known to science. This "onza" was described to be as big as a cougar (Pu. concolor) or as a jaguar (Panthera onca) (It is noteworthy that the species name onca applied by Linnaeus, comes from Portuguese onça, the equivalent to Spanish onza, which shows how this name has been applied to many different felines since the time of the European conquest).
The Sinaloa onza was said to be in most respects like a cougar, but with more slender legs, ears and body (Carmony, 1995). As there were no preserved individuals of the so-called onza, it remained a mystery until one was killed, and not surprisingly, it turned out to be a cougar (Dracht et al., 1996). I shall not refer to other events related to the story of the Sinaloa "onza", as all of them are metaphysical speculations out of the field of science.
Some locals still think the Sinaloa onza is something new, such as a new subspecies of cougar. Nevertheless, all individuals live within the distribution range of Pu. concolor azteca. It is highly unlikely that there would be enough reproductive isolation to allow the so-called onzas to share so few alleles with the local subspecies to be considered a different subspecies.
Common names and folk tales can be very misleading sources of information related to animal taxonomy. An example of such case is the story of the word onza as used in Mexico and the legends of fantastic cats not described by science with abilities not found in any real species that come from it.
1. ALSTON ER. 1882. Biologia Centrali-Americana; Mammalia. Frederick Ducane Godman and Osbert Salvin, London [ Links ]
2. ALVAREZ DEL TORO M. 1977. Los Mamíferos de Chiapas. Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Chiapas, Tuxtla Gutiérrez. [ Links ]
3. CARMONY NB. 1995. Onza! The Hunt for a Legendary Cat. High-Lonesome Books, Silver City. [ Links ]
4. DRACHT P, W ROSLUND, J MARTENSON, M CULVER and S O'BRIEN. 1996. Molecular genetic identification of a Mexican onza species as a puma (Puma concolor). Cryptozoology 12:42-49 [ Links ]
5. HEUVELMANS B. 1955. Sur la Piste des Bêtes Ignorées. Plon, Paris. [ Links ]
6. LEOPOLD AS. 1959. Wildlife of Mexico: The game birds and mammals. University of California Press, Berkeley. [ Links ]