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The Onza is claimed to be a feline species similar to a cougar. It is a cryptid – a creature whose existence has been alleged but not proven. The term has also been used to refer to the jaguarundi (Puma yaguaroundi).
The Spanish name onza derives from the Latin lynx, lyncis, and is equivalent to the English word "ounce", originally applied to the lynx but now more commonly to the snow leopard (Uncia uncia). There are old texts written by Spanish conquistadors about the onza, but they might refer to the jaguarundi, which is known as onza in many Mexican states. Onça is the Portuguese word for jaguar, Panthera onca, where a spotted jaguar is known as onça-pintada and a melanistic one as onça-preta. These are real animals, occurring as far north as Mexico and possibly into the southwest of the United States. Also, a cat some call the "puma" Puma concolor is known most often as onça-parda in some areas of Brazil (in others, it is known by the name that predates American cougar, suçuarana).
Legends from history
A legend that is claimed to be less well known among cryptozoologists states that there are two species of jaguarundi living in Mexico, one usually called "onza" and the other called by other local names.
In another legend, according to some unknown cryptozoologists, a Mexican feline that first appeared in Aztec texts, is an onza.
In another legend, Volume 13 of the Florentine Codex, a compilation of Aztec customs, beliefs and natural history, describes the cuitlamiztli, which is said to resemble a cougar but is far more aggressive.
In another legend, Christopher Columbus sent a letter from Mexico to "the Spanish kings", describing a remarkable animal: "A marksman killed a beast like a cat, but pretty much longer and with a human-like face. He pierced it with an arrow... Nevertheless, it was so wild that he had to cut a foreleg and a rear leg from it. When a boar saw the beast, it got the creeps... In spite of that, the huge cat was dying... It immediately attacked the boar, surrounded his snout with his tail and strongly pressed it. Then with the foreleg that was left, it strangled it."
In another legend, when the conquistadors arrived in Mexico from Spain, they were shown the great zoo of the emperor Montezuma. One of the Spaniards, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, said that the zoo contained "tigers (jaguars) and lions (cougars) of two kinds, one of which resembled the wolf".
In another legend, after the Spaniards settled in Mexico, the animal was seen more often, and some unidentified group of people gave it the name onza. "It is not as timid as the [cougar]", wrote a Jesuit priest, Father Ignaz Pfefferkorn, in 1757, "and he who ventures to attack it must be well on his guard". Another missionary, Father Johann Baegert, wrote that an "onza dared to invade my neighbor's mission when I was visiting, and attacked a 14-year-old boy in broad daylight ... A few years ago another killed the strongest and most respected soldier" in the area.
Twentieth century legends
One such story says that in 1938, hunters Dale and Clell Lee, with Indiana banker Joseph Shirk, shot what locals called an "onza" near La Silla Mountain in Sinaloa. Dale Lee was certain that the animal they shot was not a "puma.[clarification needed (cougar or the genus?)] Although somewhat resembling what some think is a "puma" in coloration, its ears, legs, and body were longer, and it was built more lightly than a what they called a puma.
The Mysterious Mr. Vega
In this legend, the only viable specimen to have been examined was contributed by a rancher named Andres Murillo. In January 1986, he shot what he thought was a jaguar attacking him. Although there's no explanation of who proved it or how, the story goes on to say that it was proved not to be a jaguar. Murillo brought the specimen to a person identified only as "Vega", who was said to own a nearby ranch. There it was found to be a female, weighing 60 lb (27 kg), and measuring 45 inches (1.1 m) long, without the 23 inches (58 cm)-long tail. The story claims the animals were much like cougars, but had lighter frames with longer, striped legs, longer ears, and a longer tail. It also claimed this particular cat had the appearance of a cougar with a very long, thin body and long, thin dog-like legs. Deer had been found in its stomach, supposedly indicating that it had eaten recently. The ranch owner referred to as Vega told Murillo that the specimen greatly resembled what he called an "onza", that his father had shot in the 1970s, and the skull of which he still had.
In another version of this legend, it wasn't Andres Murillo, but two people name Rodriguez and Ricardo Zamora, who were deer hunting at about 10:30 p.m. when they came across a large cat which seemed ready to charge. Fearing a jaguar attack, Rodriguez shot it. Seeing that it was not a jaguar or a puma, they took the body back to Rodriguez's ranch, and Rodriguez contacted a Mr. Vega, who owned a nearby ranch and was an experienced hunter. This person known as Vega said that the cat was an onza and that it was nearly identical to one that his father had shot in the 1970s (the skull of the Vega animal had allegedly been preserved). Mr. Vega in turn contacted a Ricardo Urquijo, Jr., who suggested taking the animal's body to Mazatlán for examination. There, the cat was found to have a large wound on one of the rear legs, which both Rodriguez and Mr. Vega believed to have been inflicted by a jaguar. It was also found to have been in good health, with a fully functional reproductive system.
In another version of the Mr. Vega legend, it was actually the farmer Andres Murillo who owned the ranch in the San Ignacio District of Sinaloa, and that he killed an animal similar to the one shot by Dale and Clell Lee.
DNA testing confirmed that the Sinaloa specimen was a well-known subspecies of cougar and not an American cheetah or an unknown species.
In another legend, researchers from Texas Tech University were claimed to have examined a frozen onza corpse in the 1990s but concluded that it was most likely a genetic variant of the cougar, and not a distinct species. The story says that DNA testing had shown the specimen to be another known, but unmentioned cat species, with no significant difference between it and any other cat of that species.
In another, German mammalogist Helmut Hemmer even suggested that it was an extant specimen of the prehistoric American cheetah (Miracinonyx trumani). After examining American cheetah skulls, however, J. Richard Greenwell of the International Society for Cryptozoology (ISC) "concluded by 1986 that the onza was not to be identified with it".
In Mexico the term onza refers to more than one species. In some Mexican states the jaguarundi is also referred to as onza. Furthermore, there are also local legends claiming that there are two species of jaguarundi, one of which is usually called onza.
- Neil B. Carmony. Onza! The Hunt for a Legendary Cat. High Lonesome Books (1995)
- Loren Coleman. Cryptozoology A To Z. Fireside (1999)
- Robert E. Marshall. The Onza. The Story of the Search for the Mysterious Cat of the Mexican Highlands. Exposition (1961)
- Karl P.N. Shuker. Mystery Cats of the World. Robert Hale (1989)
- Karl P.N. Shuker. The New Zoo: New and Rediscovered Animals of the Twentieth Century. House of Stratus (2002)
- Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press. 1933: Ounce
- Ernesto Alvarado Reyes (2008). "The Legend of the Mexican onza". Mastozoología Neotropical (15): 147–148.