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.
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.
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.
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.