What is an Onza?

The onza may or may not be a wildcat native to Mexico. The onza is certainly a cryptid, an animal whose existence is doubtful and whose study belongs to cryptozoologists.

The first descriptions of what might have been the onza come from the records of the Spanish conquerors.

The earliest descriptions of what might have been the onza come from the accounts of Spanish conquistadores who noticed one in the huge zoo of Montezuma, king of the Aztecs. Bernal Diaz del Castillo wrote in 1520 that among carnivorous animals there were two species of lions, one of them with ears as long as a wolf. All American carnivores were new to the Spaniards and used familiar animals as points of reference. Soon after, in the trilingual compilation of the Aztec tradition called the Florentine Codex, a similar animal appears. The Aztecs called it cuitlamiztli, a Nahuatl word difficult to translate now. In the Codex it is called a “glutton cat” as it was said to eat all of its prey and then sleep for days. The translation “ring tail” suggests its patterned skin: “mitzli” itself referred to a cougar. When the Spaniards occupied and colonized the ancient Aztec empire, they also saw the animal in the wild and named it an onza.

An onza can be similar to a hyena.

The scarcity of onza beads makes sense; if an animal is a fixed element in its environment, its name suffices as a description, and there is no need to write about its characteristics in detail. During the 18th century, new European missionaries in Sonora, a Mexican state far north of the ancient Aztec Empire, noticed the alarming presence of this large and particularly dangerous creature, but described its appearance only as a cougar.

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An Onza is a mythical cat-like creature that lives in Mexico.

In 1938, a group of men hunting in the state of Sinaloa, near Sonora, shot and killed an unusual-looking large cat that the local population identified as an onza; those who saw him said that his ears were notably longer than a cougar’s and that the frame was thinner. Another strange cat killed in 1986 provided the most useful evidence about the nature of the onza. A farmer who showed the body reported that his father had shot the same type of animal, and that it was an onza. This one was photographed: it looks like a long-legged and very skinny puma. A zoologist who examined the body also did DNA tests on it and concluded that, although slimmer and possessing retractable claws, the cat was not genetically distinct from a cougar. This put an end to the notion that the onza might be a living relic of the prehistoric American cheetah.

The onza, then, may be a recurring variant of the puma. Alternatively, the skinny cat killed in 1987 may not be the historic onza or cuitlamittli, but an entirely different animal. Onza, from the Latin for “leopard”, is a flexible word when it comes to cats. The jaguarondi, a small, non-aggressive wildcat, is called an onza in some areas of its habitat. Onca, the Portuguese variant of onza, is the Brazilian word for leopard. The word is also related to “lynx” and an obsolete English word for leopard, “jaguar”.

Castillo’s description is brief and vague, part of a long catalog of wonders found in Montezuma’s astonishing zoo. Instead of looking at a species of cat, he may have seen a species of dog, perhaps even something like a hyena. This last possibility introduces another extinct species into the race: Chasmaportethes ossifragus, the hyena’s only relative in North America, a Pleistocene animal. It is not at all likely that this is what Castillo saw as a wolf-lion, but it is possible. It is also possible that the Onza of the Spaniards and the Cuitlamitztli of the Aztecs, whether of the same animal or not, are themselves extinct.

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