Posted by: Rob Viens | October 9, 2012

On Naming the Puma

On October 9th Darwin’s only entry states that he ” Staid on board” – possibly examining and cataloging specimens from the previous day which included a puma, more mega-fossils and a “venomous snake”.

Here is what he has to say about the puma:

“The Captain had bought from the Gaucho soldiers a large Puma or South American lion, & this morning it was killed for its skin.— These animals are common in the Pampas, I have frequently seen their footsteps in my walks: it is said they will not attack a man; though they evidently are quite strong enough.— The Gauchos secured this one; by first throwing the balls & entangling its front legs, they then lassoed or noosed him, when, by riding round a bush & throwing other lassos, he was soon lashed firm and secure.” (Oct 8)

There is a lot of overlap in the names people use for what we might call the “medium-sized cats” (bigger than a house cat – smaller than a lion). Some that are common include the mountain lion, cougar, panther, puma, jaguar, jaguarundi, and leopard.

Cougar (from Wikipedia Commons):


Let me try and break this down, as the naming of these cats is very confusing.  First off – what Darwin probably encountered was a good old-fashioned cougar (Puma concolor).  Cougars range all across the America’s and have local names in virtually every country. (Apparently, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the Puma concolor holds the world record for the animal with the largest variety of names.) Here in the northwest we call them cougars or mountain lions (which is technically not correct because (1) they are not lions and (2) they are not restricted to the mountains). In Florida, Puma concolor goes by the name of Florida panther (though technically it does not belong to the genus Panthera either). Puma is commonly used to describe the cougars in South America.  It is derived from a Peruvian word for “powerful”.

Range of Puma concolor (from Wikipedia Commons):

cougar range

Although similar, leopards are found only in Africa. And leopards and jaguars (found in South America) are classified as “big cats” – along with lions and tigers.

Lastly, the jaguarundi is a South American species of “small cat” that is in the same genus as the cougar – effectively its closest living relative. (Yes, a cougar is officially classified as a “small cat”, too – Subfamily Felinae.)

Interestingly the Felinae are believed to have evolved in Asia and, about 8 million years ago, crossed the Bering land bridge to North America.

Confused yet?  I know I am…. (RJV)


  1. I agree: quite confusing!

  2. […] Puma (see On Naming the Puma) […]

  3. […] (For more on the lion (puma) Darwin was tracking see On Naming the Puma.) […]

  4. […] Felinae includes all the rest (including house cats and the puma Darwin encountered earlier (see On Naming the Puma)). Jaguars are the only living member of the first group in the New World, and surprisingly, are […]

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