Posted by: Rob Viens | October 14, 2013

Walking the Tiger Trail

On the 12th of October, Darwin boarded a boat called the Balandra and began the journey down the Rio Parana. In his diary he wrote:

“Embarked on board the Balandra; a one masted vessel of a hundred tuns; we made sail down the current. — The weather continuing bad, we only went a few leagues & fastened the vessel to the trees on one of the islands. — The Parana is full of islands; they are all of one character, composed of muddy sand, at present about four feet above the level of the water; in the floods they are covered. — An abundance of willows & two or three other sorts of trees grow on them, & the whole is rendered a complete jungle by the variety & profusion of creeping plants. — These thickets afford a safe harbour for many capinchas & tigers. — The fear of these latter animals quite destroyed all pleasure in scrambling in the islands. — On this day I had not proceeded a hundred yards, before finding the most indubitable & recent sign of the tiger. I was obliged to retreat; on every islands there are tracks; as in a former excursion the “rastro” of the Indians had been the constant subject of observation, so in this was the “rastro del tigre”.” (Oct 12)

Darwin’s description brings back memories of my own trip down the Stikine River, where it flows across southeastern Alaska.  Rather than being on a hundred ton vessel, I was in a kayak, and that river ran through a much different climate. However, the imagery was surprisingly similar.  Near the mouth of the river the sediment laden water weaved among several large islands.  Some where just mud flats, exposed only at low tide, while others were covered with rich vegetation.  I have fond memories of islands covered in grasses, alders and wildflowers – a “profusion of creeping plants”.  Most distinctly I can remember islands literally covered in blooming wild irises, looking like purple floats in a parade.  My islands had no tigers, but they were occasionally traversed by a brown bear – a reality that kept us on our toes.

Wildflowers on islands in the Stikine River (from Art’s Work Blog, alas, my shots are sill in the form of Kodak slides)

Stikine Wildflowers

Darwin’s tigers weren’t really tigers either – his “rastro del tigre” (tiger trails) were walked by jaguars, which he describes below:

“The jaguar is a much more dangerous animal than is generally supposed: they have killed several wood-cutters; occassionally they enter vessels. There is a man now in the Bajada, who coming up from below at night time was seized by a tiger, but he escaped with the loss of the use of one arm. — When the floods drive the tigers out of the islands; they are most dangerous. — a few years since a very large one entered a church at St Fe. Two padres entering one after the other were killed, a third coming to see what was the cause of their delay, escaped with difficulty. — The beast was killed by unroofing one corner of the room & firing at it. — The tigers annually kill a considerable number of young oxen & horses. — These islands undergo a constant round of decay & renovation. — in the memory of the master several large ones had disappeared, others again had been formed & protected by vegetation.” (Oct 12)

The jaguar (Panthera onca) is a type of cat (a Felid) belonging to the Order Carnivora.  Unlike most cats, jaguars like to swim – which explains why they might be found on the islands in the river. (Jaguar images are from Wikipedia Commons.)


Darwin’s fear of jaguar is not unfounded, as the Felids are basically hunting machines.  They are all obligate carnivores – requiring meat to survive (a trait which is more rare than it might seem), and they have the tools to find it.  Cats have powerful jaws, sharp teeth, retractable claws, and papillae on the tongue for removing meat from the bone. (Yup – think of that the next time a cat licks you with its raspy tongue.)  Even among cats, the jaguar has one of the most powerful bites – having the ability to piece the skull of its prey. They have a tapedum lucidum in the back of the eye that reflects light and gives them better vision at night (“all the better to see you with”), and a highly developed sense of smell including an organ in the mouth that lets them “taste” the air (“all the better to smell you with”). They are built for speed on the plains, climbing and pouncing from trees, and can be extremely stealthy.  It is no wonder they form some of the most fierce living predators on land today.  (I apologize if you are now more suspicious of the motives of your pet cat, but hey, they “is what they is”.)


There are 2 living subfamilies of Felids today which form two distinct groups of “cats”– the Pantherinae and the Felinae. The Pantherinae include lions, tigers jaguars and leopards.  The 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 relatively recent immigrants. They most likely crossed the Beringia land bridge sometime in the past 2 million years, probably following their food source – the mammoths. So, all in all, Darwin was not that far off in calling them “tigers”.

A third extinct subfamily of the Felids (the Machairodontinae) include the infamous saber-tooth tigers that where able to hunt and take down mammoths and ground sloths. They will have to be a story for another day… (RJV)

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