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What is an Onza?

By Kate Lonas
Updated May 21, 2024
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The onza may or may not be a wild cat native to Mexico. The onza is certainly a cryptid, an animal whose existence is in doubt, and whose study is the province of cryptozoologists.

The first descriptions of what could have been the onza come from the accounts of Spanish conquistadors who noted one in the enormous zoo of Montezuma, king of the Aztecs. Bernal Diaz del Castillo wrote in 1520 that among the carnivorous animals were two sorts of lion, one of them long-eared like a wolf. All of the American carnivores were new to the Spanish and they used familiar animals as points of reference. Soon afterward, in the trilingual compilation of Aztec lore called the Florentine Codex, a similar animal appears. The Aztecs called it cuitlamiztli, a Nahuatl word difficult now to translate. In the Codex it is given as “glutton cat,“ for it was said to eat all of its prey and then sleep for days. The translation “ringtail” suggests its patterned fur: “mitzli” itself referred to a puma. When the Spanish occupied and colonized the former Aztec empire, they too saw the animal in the wild and gave it the name onza.

The scarcity of accounts of the onza makes sense; if an animal is a fixture in its environment, its name suffices as a description, and there’s no need to write about its characteristics at length. During the 18th century, European missionaries new to Sonora, a Mexican state far north of the former Aztec Empire, noted the alarming presence of this big and particularly dangerous creature, but described its appearance only as much like a puma.

In 1938, a group of men hunting in the state of Sinaloa, near Sonora, shot and killed a big unusual-looking cat that local people identified as an onza; those who saw it said its ears were notably longer than a cougar’s, and the frame slimmer. Another strange cat killed in 1986 has provided the most useful evidence regarding the nature of the onza. A rancher shown the body reported that his father had shot the same kind of animal, and that it was an onza. This one was photographed: it looks like a long-legged and very thin puma. A zoologist who examined the body also performed DNA tests on it, and concluded that, though leaner and possessing retractable claws, the cat was not genetically distinct from a puma. This put to rest 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 thin cat killed in 1987 may not be the historical onza or cuitlamitztli at all, but an entirely different animal. Onza, from the Latin for “leopard,” is a flexible word when it comes to cats. The jaguarondi, a small and non-aggressive wild cat, is called the onza in some of the areas of its habitat. Onca, the Portuguese variant of onza, is the Brazilian word for leopard. The word is also related both to “lynx” and to an obsolete English word for the leopard, “ounce."

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

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is an Onza?

An Onza is a purported wild cat species, or perhaps a subspecies, reported to inhabit parts of Mexico. Descriptions suggest it resembles a jaguar or puma but with a slimmer build and possibly distinct markings. However, its existence is not scientifically confirmed, and it remains a creature of folklore and unverified sightings.

Has the Onza been scientifically classified?

No, the Onza has not been scientifically classified as its existence has not been substantiated with concrete evidence. While there have been anecdotal reports and occasional claims of physical evidence, such as pelts or remains, these have not been sufficient to classify the Onza as a distinct species or subspecies within the scientific community.

Where is the Onza said to live?

The Onza is said to inhabit remote areas in Mexico, particularly in the western and northwestern regions. Sightings and stories often come from rural communities and indigenous people, but without verifiable evidence, its habitat remains part of the mystery surrounding this elusive animal.

Are there any historical accounts of the Onza?

Yes, there are historical accounts of the Onza dating back to the Spanish conquest of Mexico. Spanish explorers and later settlers reported encounters with a cat-like creature that differed from known species. However, these accounts are often vague and lack the detail necessary for scientific validation.

Could the Onza just be a misidentified known species?

It's possible that the Onza could be a misidentified known species, such as a jaguar or puma with unusual characteristics or a rare genetic variation. Without a living specimen or definitive genetic evidence, it's challenging to determine if the Onza is a distinct species or simply a case of mistaken identity.

What efforts have been made to find the Onza?

There have been sporadic efforts by both amateur enthusiasts and some scientists to find the Onza, involving field searches and examination of alleged evidence. However, these efforts have not produced results that satisfy the scientific criteria for discovery and classification of a new species or subspecies.

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Discussion Comments

By anon168359 — On Apr 16, 2011

the onza is real. when I was younger and i was working in the jungle in Trujillo Los andes, venezuela, I saw one, only for one time. It looked like a wolf -- completely black and very skinny, and my father told me do not speak about it to anybody. --Jorge

By anon35577 — On Jul 06, 2009

I agree with musashihai by far!!!

By musashihai — On Jan 24, 2009

I have been looking into this onza theme on-line. The first thing to know is that the onza is not confined to Mexico. 2nd that many who have opined are not biologists. 3rd is that for some reason people do not read in spanish columbian & ecuadorian biologist sites that have real data and photos of onza. This is best because so many humans just kill big cats instead of study them in the wild. I have seen them in Barranquilla Columbia.

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