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Thursday, March 7, 2013

Jaguarundis: Pygmy Pumas of Avatar

The resemblance is shocking.

The jaguarundi, seen above to the right, is a case of a show coincidentally landing something right without knowledge. In the Avatar: The Last Airbender episode "Tales of Ba Sing Se" (yes, the episode that induced everyone's feels), Momo is chased by a group of pygmy pumas, which bare a shocking resemblance to the jaguarundi, though based on mountain lions (the pygmies do have a more compact body similar to the latter). So what exactly is a jaguarundi?

No, it's not allergic to sunlight.

At first glance, these mammals resemble a large mustelid, something similar to the tayra of South America. Though as I've spoiled and you've probably guessed by now, jaguarundis are cats. Specifically, they're pumas. Well technically, they're close relatives. Both belong to the genus Puma, with the jaguarundi representing Puma yagouaroundi. The resemblance is mostly best seen from an upfront view, like the one in the comparison photo. These cats, similar to their cousins, have also had a complicated taxonomic history, being called Felis yagouaroundi, F. unicolor (gray phase), F. eyra (red phase), F. cacomitli, F. apache, F. fossata, F. panamensis and Herpailurus yagouraoundi.

So, info on jaguarundis. These "little cats" (scientifically known as felines, though this also causes confusion since many people refer to all cats as felines) are slightly larger than the common housecat, from to 36-54in long, though the tail constitutes a good majority of that length. They're one of the several felids to be found in both South America and North America.

Just like their more distant ocelot and jaguar relatives, the jaguarundi has been found in both the US and Mexico but sadly might be extinct in its US range, similar to the Texas ocelot and the Arizona jaguar, who might have faced similar fates. The picture below shows the jaguarundi's possible existing range in Texas, so even if it does still exist in said state, it would be rare to say the least. They also might have been introduced to Florida.

To add on to their bizarre appearance, jaguarundis are also bizarre in habits. They are rather gregarious yet solitary (an oxymoron), and produce a wide range of vocalisations unlike any other cat, including whistles, purrs, yaps, and bird-like chirping. They can hunt comfortably on land and readily scale trees, similar to the larger cougars, and reports of them swimming well exist too. They feast on rodents, reptiles, birds, rabbits, opossums, and fish. Taking on comparatively large prey, climbing trees, swimming, vocalising in strange rhythms; they're as if someone combined a puma and a jaguar into a weasel's body. Of course, convergent evolution shows us that several other cats have adopted similar forms.

Jaguarundis: they've had a complicated history, they've been split due to colour, they climb trees, swim, and make strange sounds, they're the most famous of the weasel-like cats (as I call them), and it turns out they're almost the exact same as the pygmy puma on Avatar. They're so strange and so underrated at the same time. Now go out and tell everyone you know about them.

Or else they'll kill your lemur or something.


First jaguarundi photo - Alena Houskova
Jaguarundi in tree - Bruno Damiani
Jaguarundi eating agouti - Nick Gordon

news.mongabay.com (photos)

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