This article contains comment. It has to because there is a certain degree of mystery and confusion surrounding the onza. There is speculation and uncertainty which lends itself to personal comment. However, the title indicates that I’ve decided that the onza is a gracile puma to use the words of Sarah Hartwell. The word “gracile” means slender. And frankly, the best description comes from Sarah Hartwell on her website messybeast.com. She is very good at these sorts of anomalous or mysterious wild cat species. I’ve also relied upon a useful article by Dr. Karl Shuker.
Distortions and distractions
One of the problems with this sort of cat is that people tend to create myths, legends and distortions about animals they aren’t sure about. It’s just the way humankind operates. People like to exaggerate when they are unsure about something they see and which might frighten them. It’s the same with people seeing big cats in countries where there are no big cats. What they are seeing is a domestic cat.
Skinny puma or distinct cat species?
The onza originates in Mexico, Central America. It’s been dismissed as a myth which means that it is not a distinct species but a mountain lion (puma). A final test on the remains of an onza published in the journal Cryptozoology found that this is not a distinct species. The results were indistinguishable from those of the North American puma.
But in 1757 it was spoken of as being a distinct species. It was said to be less timid than the puma. It had a thinner and longer body. In the publication System of Nature (1773) it was described as follows: The Panther Felis Onca. Even if females of the Leopard are called Panther, nevertheless we think this name is the best for this animal. The Portuguese call it Onza because it is similar to a Lynx because of its dots. But Hernandes is calling it the Mexican Tiger.”
Both spellings were used namely ‘Onca’ and ‘Onza’. Incidentally, there’s a question mark as to whether it should be capitalised or not. I think it shouldn’t be capitalised but back in the day people did capitalise these sorts of words including the word “tiger”. Tiger is not capitalised nowadays.
And in the 1920s and 1930s it appears that this creature was mixed up with the jaguarundi. In 1938 a jaguar hunter shot an onza. They describe the animal in a similar way meaning like a slender puma, as I understand it. It’s ears and limbs were longer. The skull was donated to a museum but was lost.
The onza was later described as being a cheetah-like puma adapted for sprinting. And they shot a specimen first described as an emaciated puma. The photograph is available today I believe and is republished on this page (above). There is no doubt by mind that it shows a very slender, perhaps underfed, puma.
Dr. Karl Shuker
The medium.com website article written by Dr. Karl Shuker, describes the shooting of an onza by a Mexican ranger Andres Rodriguez Murillo on January 1, 1986 (as I understand it). It is said that he feared that the cat was a jaguar about to attack him which is why he shot it. He examined the body and decided that it was neither a jaguar nor a puma. These are the only two large wild cats officially existing in Mexico. The animal did resemble a puma “superficially” the author of this article states.
The limbs were longer and the body was slenderer. It had a cheetah-like appearance. He contacted an expert hunter, Manuel Vega, for his advice. He recognised the cat and identified it as an onza: the fabled ‘third large cat’ of Mexico.
Apparently, there are 300 years of local eyewitness accounts of the existence of this supposedly distinct cat species. These sightings have been dismissed by zoologists who regarded them as misidentified mountain lions.
There have been various accounts of onzas being shot but the evidence has been lost. For example, an Indiana banker, Joseph Shirk, supposedly shot an onza on Sinaloa’s La Silla Mountain. Paragraphs were taken and once again it was shown to resemble an “extremely gracile, long-limbed puma with big ears and unusual limb markings”.
The skull was retained but it vanished without trace. The dead body of an onza was taken to Texas University in the late 1950s but the specimen was lost as well.
At around the time of the shooting of an onza by Murillo, an onza was allegedly captured alive and for several days it was held in captivity at a ranch in northern Sonora. Apparently, it was photographed. The animal was shot and his body was thrown away. The photographs appeared and disappeared and they were not published.
Comment: back in the day, there was a very strong tendency to shoot large wild animals and/or treat them disrespectfully. Nowadays there is a slightly enhanced sensitivity towards such creatures and nature generally, thankfully.
Similarity to big cat sightings in the UK
You can see the similarity here with the indistinct and blurred photographs of so-called big cat sightings which are not big cats. The evidence is muddy. This allows for people to embellish their stories to make the cat more mysterious, more powerful and dangerous.
However, three skulls from the onza that have remained. The Rodriguez specimen was analysed by the Regional Diagnostic Laboratory of Animal Pathology at Mexico’s Ministry of Agriculture. A thorough examination took place by Dr. Troy Best. The outcome of various tests seems to conclude that the onza and the puma are ‘very closely related’. However, further tests published in the scientific journal, Cryptozoology, as reported by a research team featuring Professor Stephen O’Brien, an expert in feline molecular genetics, revealed that the Rodriguez onza is no different genetically to the North American puma.
It seems that the controversy and uncertainty about this mysterious creature is still in existence. Some people even describe the jaguarundi as an onza which is clearly misleading.
Slender puma? Why?
I will take my lead from Sarah Hartwell who probably took her lead from Dr. Karl Shucker in his medium.com article. I take his conclusion to be that the onza is a slender or gracile version of the puma but genetically indistinguishable. Why the onza is slenderer than the usual puma is another matter. Perhaps we are talking about an underfed puma. Perhaps there are a number of pumas where this cat has been found which are on starvation diets! That seems plausible to me. The puma, in any case, is a slender creature built for speed and impressive jumping. If you take a female sub-adult who is underfed you have a puma with the appearance of an onza.
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