Tetrapod Zoology

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If you’ve read the series of posts on Marc van Roosmalen’s new Amazonian mammals, you should, by now, be fairly open-minded to the possibility that large terrestrial mammals await discovery and description. And if you follow rumours about new mammal species, you’ll have heard of the alleged new big cat species that ornithologist and missionary Peter Hocking (of the Natural History Museum in Lima, Peru) has reported from the Peruvian Amazon (Hocking 1992, 1996). Eleven years have passed, and where are those cats now?

Peter Hocking was born in Peru to American missionary parents, studied at Bible college in the USA, and in 1963 returned to Peru, gave up his US citizenship and become a Peruvian citizen. Interested from an early age in animals, he has described how he took every opportunity to gather information from local hunters on the birds and mammals that they knew, and – in a similar fashion to primatologist Marc van Roosmalen – has succeeded in documenting various animals that are ethnoknown only, and do not match officially recognised taxa (Hocking 1992). Among these are several unverified mammals, including a large black short-tailed arboreal primate called the isnachi, several enigmatic large cats, a small, mountain-dwelling cat, and a small bear.

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Thanks to these ethnological discoveries, Hocking is mentioned quite a lot in the cryptozoological literature. But it is not difficult to find him mentioned and credited in the ‘mainstream’ zoological literature, and he has a good and undoubted record of making discoveries. Several Peruvian birds were discovered by Hocking. The Apurimac spinetail Synallaxis courseni, named by Emmet Blake (1971), was first collected by Hocking in 1968, and the Golden-backed mountain-tanager Buthraupis aureodorsalis, named by Blake & Hocking (1974), was first collected by Hocking and colleague Manuel Villar in 1973. In their study of Peruvian bats, Solari et al. (1999) thanked Hocking for bringing their attention to the unexplored mountains of Yanachaga, and in 2005 Thomas Arndt named the new conure Aratinga hockingi in Hocking’s honour (Arndt 2005). Hocking has also named new species: together with Emmet Blake, he named the Rufous-brown hemispingus Hemispingus rufosuperciliaris (Blake & Hocking 1974), and with J. Bates and Leo Joseph, he named the Wavy-breasted parakeet Pyrrhura peruviana (Joseph 2002*) [adjacent painting, by Dana Gardner, shows Golden-backed mountain-tanager].

* This is one of those papers where the authorship of the species name does not match the authorship of the paper. I didn’t realise you could do that. In fact, I don’t think you should do that.

The reason we’re here, however, is that physical remains have now been procured for one of the mysterious mammals reported by Hocking, and this is a skull belonging to a cat known informally as the ‘striped tiger’. This is a striped, jaguar-sized cat known from only two reports, and with the skull obtained from a hunter in Peru’s Pasco province. What has become of this skull, and if it does represent a possible new species, why haven’t we heard more about it? [I have attempted to redraw the skull from Hocking's paper: it's shown above].

In his 1996 paper (apparently submitted in 1993 but then delayed due to problems with the journal), Hocking described how photos of the skull were sent to felid specialist Steven Conkling of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. I have no idea what ever came of Conkling’s examination: does anyone?

In his now-defunct newsletter Exotic Zoology, Matt Bille of Matt’s Sci/Tech Blog discussed his efforts to obtain the opinions of professional mammalogists Troy Best of Auburn University and Cheri Jones of the Denver Museum of Natural History (now the Denver Museum of Nature and Science) on the skull. Both workers noted the difficulties involved in making decisions based on photographs, but Jones concluded that, in the photo provided, ‘the skull on the left does appear to be that of a jaguar and that on the right seems to be of a larger felid’ (Jones in Bille 1997). Matt further noted that the ‘striped tiger’ skull was not only larger, it also differed from the jaguar skull in proportions: the jaguar skull exhibited a width : height ratio of 1.59 while the same ratio in the ‘striped tiger’ was 1.37, though he noted that ‘whether this falls into the range of possible variations in the skulls of jaguars is a question I’m not qualified to answer’ (Bille 1997). I lack immediate access to any collection of jaguar skulls and am also not able to check this. Incidentally, the photo that Matt, Best and Jones were using for comparison showed Hocking’s ‘striped tiger’ and jaguar skulls from the front. I have yet to see this photo: fig. 3 of Hocking (1996) – the one figure in this paper that shows the two skulls together – depicts the specimens in right lateral view. So far as I know therefore, the other photo remains unpublished.

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Compared to a jaguar skull, the ‘striped tiger’ skull is not only bigger and different in its width : height ratio, it also appears to have a shorter, deeper face, a more gracile zygomatic arch and, possibly, a shallower lower jaw. The photo also shows that the skull has a rather convex frontal region, which reminded me of a tiger’s skull. So, if the ‘striped tiger’ skull is larger than that of a jaguar, and apparently belonged to a striped cat, and looks a bit tiger-like… could it actually be that of a tiger? As in, belonging to the predominantly Asian species Panthera tigris. I say predominantly Asian because tigers managed to get into North America during the Pleistocene, apparently, and also inhabited Turkey until perhaps the 1970s (and bits of Turkey are sort of European, err, according to some people). Fragmentary fossils have also led to suggestions that tigers formerly occurred in Africa too*. Oh and, when I say ‘the species Panthera tigris‘, note that tigers are yet another of those groups where recent revisions have upped the number of species. Based on molecular and morphometric data, Sumatran tigers P. sumatrae and Javan tigers P. sondaica have recently been elevated to species status (Cracraft et al. 1998, Mazák & Groves 2006). Hey, how come this didn’t get all the media attention that the resurrection of Diard’s clouded leopard did?

* There is also the interesting story of Panthera tigris sudanensis, a new subspecies named in 1951 for a skin that – allegedly – came from Sudan. The radical thought that this was really evidence of a previously undiscovered, modern-day African tiger has been generally dismissed (correctly I think) and almost entirely ignored.

Anyway, if the striped tiger skull is that of a tiger, what the hell would it be doing in the Peruvian Amazon? Believe it or don’t, escaped tigers have been reported living wild in Central (though not South) America: in Mystery Cats of the World Karl Shuker mentioned tigers in Honduras that had descended from some circus escapees and since bred. Echoing Best and Jones’ comments above, making comparison from photos alone is unwise and always difficult, and we can’t get enough information from the ‘striped tiger’ photo to determine anything definitive. Tiger skulls can be difficult to distinguish from those of other big cats, but they tend to have an elevated frontal region and long nasals that project beyond the anterior extremities of the maxillae [tiger skull shown in pic above]. Characters of the premolars and molars are also diagnostic (Mazák 1981). The ‘striped tiger’ skull doesn’t appear to have the long nasals of tigers, and its face is also shorter than that of a tiger, so on balance I don’t think it is from a true tiger after all.

As for what it really is, we still await the news. If, as intimated, the skull represents a new species, it is mightily strange that we haven’t heard anything about it. There are, however, many cases where years and years have gone by before people got round to publishing planned technical work. In fact, take a look at Hocking’s own work: the Wavy-breasted parakeet, which he co-named in 2002, was collected (by him) in December 1965 (Joseph 2002). I would love to know what is happening with the specimen, even if it did turn out to be unidentifiable, or merely a freak jaguar or puma or something. And, for those people who seem not to read what I write but merely scribble down their own knee-jerk reactions, no I am not saying ‘holy crap it’s a new species’: I’m saying wow, this is really interesting, can we have more data please!

That’s not all. In the paper where he reported the ‘striped tiger’ skull, Hocking (1996) reported the discovery of another mysterious big cat skull. Obtained in 1993 from another hunter, this animal was reported to be heavily marked with solid black irregular spots, and not rosettes like a jaguar. A photo of the skull was published but my copy is not clear enough to determine anything useful: the skull was reported by Hocking to differ in certain details from a jaguar skull, and again photos had been passed to Conkling for evaluation.

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Given that the two cats discussed here were, respectively, striped and spotted, there is no reason to think that they are anything to do with the black, white-throated onça-canguçú documented by Marc van Roosmalen [skull shown in adjacent pic]. The idea that one new species of big cat awaits discovery in South America is radical enough: the idea that there might be two is heretical, and the possibility of three is the sort of thing that makes most people roll their eyes. If anyone knows anything new about these specimens – or if they can contact Conkling, or Hocking, or anyone else who knows what has been happening with these specimens over the past ten years or so – we would all love to hear from you.

UPDATE (added 6-6-2007): I’ve just noted the following statement about the ‘striped tiger’ skull on Sarah Hartwell’s messybeast site

In 1994, Peter Hocking obtained skulls of a female South American Striped Tiger and though the photos only show the skulls face-on, the striped tiger’s skull is visibly narrower than a jaguar’s skull though the canine teeth turn out to be no longer than those of the jaguar. The skull of the striped tiger apparently does not correspond to any known species. The skull of the speckled tiger (also female) has robust, tusk-like fangs and the whole skull is sturdier than that of either the jaguar or the striped tiger.

Refs – -

Arndt, T. 2005. A revision of the Aratinga mitrata complex, with the description of one new species, two new subspecies and species-level status of Aratinga alticola. Journal of Ornithology 147, 73-86.

Bille, M. 1997. News and comment. Exotic Zoology 4 (2), 4.

Blake, E. R. 1971. A new species of spinetail (Synallaxis) from Peru. Auk 88, 179.

- . & Hocking, P. 1974. Two new species of tanager from Peru. The Wilson Bulletin 86, 321-324.

Cracraft, J., Feinstein, J., Vaughn, J. & Helm-Bychowski, K. 1998. Sorting out tigers (Panthera tigris): mitochondrial sequences, nuclear inserts, systematics and conservation genetics. Animal Conservation 1, 139-150.

Hocking, P. J. 1992. Large Peruvian mammals unknown to zoology. Cryptozoology 11, 38-50.

- . 1996 (for 1993). Further investigations into unknown Peruvian mammals. Cryptozoology 12, 50-57.

Joseph, L. 2002. Geographical variation, taxonomy and distribution of some Amazonian Pyrrhura parakeets. Ornitologica Neotropical 13, 337-363.

Mazák, J. H. & Groves, C. P. 2006. A taxonomic revision of the tigers (Panthera tigris) of southeast Asia. Mammalian Biology 71, 268-287.

Mazák, V. 1981. Panthera tigris. Mammalian Species 152, 1-8.

Solari, S., Pacheco, V. & Vivar, E. 1999. Nuevos registros distribucionales de murciélagos Peruanos. Revista Peruana de Biología 6, 152-159.

Comments

  1. #1 QrazyQat
    June 4, 2007

    It would seem pretty easy for an escapee tiger, or more than one, to live in South America unnoticed or largely so. Folks might not realise how many tigers and other large cats are in private collections, some less secure than others. After a recent death by tiger here in British Columbia, it turns out there are quite a few of them in private hands, and in fact there is no requirement to report having them so no one knows just how many there are.

    And why is it that the various bits of cryptoids said to exist so often go missing?

  2. #2 Christopher Taylor
    June 5, 2007

    Differing name authors versus paper authors is quite common in botany. Usually it indicates that the specific descriptive section was written by the specific authors who are credited with the name (as opposed to by all the authors for the entire paper).

  3. #3 Phil Hore
    June 5, 2007

    These are not the only mystery cats by far. My favourite is of course the Marozi, a stropped/spotted lion from Africa of which you can find pictures of the skins held in the British museum (I believe). There was also the black lion from a zoo in Glasgow (had some problems with its melanin) and the Onza from Mexico, which I’m still waiting to find more info about.
    For years we have known about white lions and tigers, but what about, black, gold, blue and double striped tigers? All these variants have been reported over the last few centuries.
    And of course lets not forget about that media darling at the moment, the ‘King Cheetah’, an odd variant with jellybean stripes instead of spots. My favourite reasoning behind their sudden appearance is that a recessive gene has fired and some of the most genetically troublesome cheetahs offspring are ‘reverting’ to a former body plan. Basically King cheetahs resemble the cats that modern cheetahs evolved from (such as Acinonyx pardinensis). To add some speculation into this idea, there is also a group of isolated elephants in India that seem to be doing something similar as many members of the herd have Stegodon features.
    So why couldn’t there be hidden cat species in South America? Large cats are notoriously hard to spot in the wild, and an introverted species would be doubly hard to find. When it comes to things like this, I prefer to think “well, why not?” rather then “how could it be?”

  4. #4 Dave Hughes
    June 5, 2007

    Gripping stuff again…but at the same time infuriating!
    Specimens gone AWOL, inconclusive drawings, murky photos, alleged discoveries announced, then a decade of silence, mystery cats ‘reported to be…’, ‘said to look like…’and so on and so on…. Why would anyone treat a potentially headline-grabbing (and career-making)discovery like this? I’m not a felid specialist, but if I was, and I found myself in possession of the skull of a potentially unknown living large cat, I’d drop anything else I was doing until I’d found out what it was, and if it turned out to be new I’d have my paper in the post to ‘Nature’ before the ink was dry on the pages.
    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that this sort of thing shouldn’t be discussed. I find it all as fascinating as you obviously do, and I would love to see these new species verified. But I can really sympathise with the stance of the’hard’ sceptics who would argue that until these alleged discoveries have been properly described by competent specialists, and the results published in reputable peer-reviewed journals, they’re all just hot air and life is too short to waste time on them.

  5. #5 Darren Naish
    June 5, 2007

    Thanks to all for comments. However, the specimens haven’t gone missing: sorry if I implied that.

  6. #6 Georgalis Georgios
    June 5, 2007

    Tiger in Europe…?
    I have read several articles about tigers in some Greek islands (e.g. Chios and Samos). Probably they swam from Asia Minor.
    As for the new cats…
    Tetrapod Biodiversity never ends….

  7. #7 Sordes
    June 5, 2007

    Many years ago I saw in a little museum at Samos a stuffed Leopard (I didn´t realized the other paleontological treasures in the museum at that time), which crossed the sea from Turkey at the beginning of the 20th century. Although being obviously a leopard, it was called a tiger. As you surely already supposed, it didn´t survive for a long time, because it developed a taste for lifestock. Given the fact that Greece is a part of Europe, this was most probably the last “natural occuring” big cat of Europe. The original story and a photo of the leopard can be seen here: http://hellas.teipir.gr/Thesis/samos/english/tdk160.html

  8. #8 Dave Hughes
    June 5, 2007

    The reality or otherwise of these alleged new species will obviously be resolved by study of the physical evidence – should it ever appear, but until then it seems to me there are some anomalies that should make us pause before popping the champagne.
    All the known big cats (i.e puma -size or above) are adaptable creatures with huge geographic ranges. Historically, lions and cheetahs ranged over the whole of non-forested Africa, the Middle East and India, leopards still occur over most of this, plus the forests too. Tigers once from ranged from Turkey to Bali. In the New World, pumas covered most of both continents, with jaguars from the southern US to Argentina. The snow leopard is more patchy and habitat-specific in its distribution but still occupies a vast range in central Asia. Yet here we supposedly have up to three new jaguar-sized cats endemic to (presumably) relatively small areas of territory. They must be localized, or else we’d surely have known about them by now. How likely does that seem? You would think that top carnivores would be among the least likely mammals to persist for long in small, relict populations as a result of their high energy requirements, large territories and low population density. Also, it seems odd that this should be happening in South America, which has less to offer in the way of large prey than any other continent except Australia.
    Maybe someone more knowledgeable about cats than I am can add to this? And needless to say, I may be a cautious sceptic about this , but I would still be delighted to be proven wrong!

  9. #9 Darren Naish
    June 5, 2007

    Dave: it has indeed been argued that, when restricted to small habitat pockets, big cats are prone to extinction (O’Regan 2002). You raise good points: I would certainly agree that a new large cat apparently limited to a small area would be theoretically unlikely. But that may or may not mean anything: Bali had an endemic tiger for example (at 5600 km sq Bali is about 230 times smaller than Peru) and, if these cats are real, we know nothing of their ranges. I don’t think that anyone is ‘popping the champagne’ yet.. we are all keeping a sceptical eye out for new data.

    Ref – -

    O’Regan, H. J. 2002. European Quaternary refugia: a factor in large carnivore extinction? Journal of Quaternary Research 17, 789-795.

  10. #10 Christopher Taylor
    June 5, 2007

    As I understand it, the king cheetah was described as a separate species, Acinonyx rex Pocock 1927, but has since been reassessed as a colour variant of the standard cheetah, Acinonyx jubatus. I haven’t heard anything about a resurgence in attention to it, though…

  11. #11 David Marjanovi?
    June 6, 2007

    Keep in mind that “relatively small” still means “the size of France”.

  12. #12 Alan Kellogg
    June 7, 2007

    Biologists these days tend to be cautious when assessing claims. Especially with certain people going around and bitching loudly about certain subjects.

    Mis-handling of evidence by the discoverers doesn’t help matters any. You need to make what you have available for study, and by a number of people. The why of this is illustrated by the criminal mis-handling of the onza remains.

    Last I heard the sole onza specimen has only been examined by one person, who refuses to allow others to have a look at it. Only he has examined the skeleton, and only one genetic test of a particular type has ever been performed upon it.

    When you have a possible new species the first thing you want to do is to get your specimen in the hands of people trained to do a proper assesment. You especially want to have a number of people taking a look.

    Let’s say, for whatever reason seems sensible in a feline mind, a strange looking small cat walks up to you and adopts you. It might be some strange breed of domestic cat (show quality Siamese are weird), but you want to make sure.

    Take it to the biology department at your local university and show it to one of the zoology professors there. Suggest he let a team drawn from his students study the animal. Anatomical, behavioral, genetic comparisons. The more people involved the more ideas you’ll get bouncing off each other. Never make a new specimen the exclusive domain of just one person. Open science is really the only way of handling something like this.

  13. #13 Mike Williams
    June 8, 2007

    “Also, it seems odd that this should be happening in South America, which has less to offer in the way of large prey than any other continent except Australia.”
    Valid comment regarding Australia if you disregard native animals like kangaroos/wallabies/emu/wombats/goannas etc

    Mike

  14. #14 jerzy
    July 4, 2007

    These “strange cats” are almost certainly mutant jaguars.

    They match color aberrations found in other cat species, highlighting that all felids have uniform genetics of colorations. These genes are actually surprisingly well studied in common tabbies and conserved in other cats!

    Striped jaguar is simply variant of “king cheetah” with spots joined into stripes.

  15. #15 Darren Naish
    July 5, 2007

    Which studies have been done that determine this, and how does this hypothesis explain the marked differences in cranial morphology? Please provide citations if you can. Thanks for your comment.

  16. #16 Jerzy
    July 5, 2007

    For citations of cat coloration look under cat breeding and veterinary science. Some patterns of color inheritance from domestic cats was also observed in zoo big cats (leopards and tigers, I believe). Try also book ‘Cat biology”.

    About possible skull differences I feel unable to comment.

  17. #17 Darren Naish
    July 5, 2007

    Thank you for response: I am of course familiar with work on coat aberrations in felids – what I was getting at by questioning you was the fact that your statement makes it sounds as if the required genetic work has been done on Hocking’s cats, which of course it hasn’t. I agree that the possibility that both are mutant jaguars is indeed a good hypothesis. However, for the so-called ‘striped tiger’ in particular, this is not entirely satisfactory as the animal did not differ only in coat pattern: as discussed in the article here, the big deal is that it appears to possess a skull morphology different from that of jaguars, and indeed from other cats. So, it is not satisfactory to simply dismiss the animal as a colour aberration. Further study is needed to bring an end to this.

  18. #18 Jerzy
    July 5, 2007

    I know little about skulls, but are you familiar with VARIABILITY of skulls of big cats?

    Anyway, skull shape is secondary. We live in age of DNA testing. Skull, a bit of bone, skin, faeces, few hair plucked from a skin give enough DNA. And lots of curious young lab biologists would spare some chemicals to run a sequencing. No congenital disorder or partial specimen hides from it.

    I see no reason why this skull is not verified this way – other that researcher himself/herself doesn’t want the story to be verified.

    You can write a bit about famous cryptid stories solved this way. Yeti scalp in Panboche (DNA of goral), onza (DNA of local pumas), manipugary (hair of giant anteater) and Pseudonovibos spiralis (DNA of cow)…

  19. #19 Jerzy
    July 5, 2007

    To make sure: the same disorders in domestic cat and other cat makes extremely likely that color pattern is common character of all cats, including jaguars.

  20. #20 Jerzy
    July 5, 2007

    To make sure: the same disorders in domestic cat and other cat makes extremely likely that color pattern is common character of all cats, including jaguars.

  21. #21 gustavo sanchez romero
    July 29, 2007

    Dear Darren,
    Hello my name is Gustavo Sanchez Romero and I am a biologist writing from Tenerife, Canary Islands. I have already sent some comments to your excellent blog months ago. I hope you remember me a bit.
    Well the purpose of this mail is to comment on some of the information about Peter Hocking. I have written some general articles on crypto felids and I have contacted him, both my mail and phone, in Peru. He is very kind man and we even interview him on a radio show in which I collaborate on a weekly basis.
    I think that if you want he would be interested on talking to you. I could send you his phone number in Lima or mail, prior to his knowledge.
    The whole thing on unknown South American felids is a great mystery. I am currently conducting ichtiological research at High Orinoco, Venezuela (Well once a year I go with Foundation La Salle and collect specimens for a whole month. We are also developing a long term study on the confluence of Irinida-Atabapo-Orinoco Rivers). Yanomami Indians have told me things about ground sloth and other cryptids. In Canaima National Park I have gather information about sabre tooth cats (Published). In Guatopo National Park a qualified ranger gave me data on an Onza type cat (same features as the Mexican animal) which he spotted 3 years ago. There are things on the bush.
    Well I hope we keep in touch,
    Sincerely,
    All the best,
    gsr

  22. #22 Darren Naish
    July 29, 2007

    Hi Gustavo: yes, I remember you from the exchange we had at my flickr site (and sorry for never providing all the names of those marine cryptids: I have still not had time to do this). I’m very interested to hear that you’ve communicated with Peter Hocking, and I would be keen to receive contact data (email is best: please send information to my email account at eotyrannus at gmail dot com). The other news you mention is very interesting, thanks for sharing it.

  23. #23 Arwen Azul
    September 27, 2007

    I know felid specialist Steven Conkling personally. He has not been with the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County for some years now. He is now a principal with LSA Associates in Los Angeles county. He can be contacted there. I have his email and phone number if you’d like them. Please contact me at my email if you’d like them. I’m sure he’d be happy to tell you about his study. Thank you for your blog. I enjoy keeping up with all the news of the day regarding paleontology.

    [from Darren: to those interested, I have emailed Arwen and will post further news on any developments]