Q&A: Leopard, Jaguar, Puma, Cougar, Panther… which is it?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're herding cats…

Q: Hey AWC, can we talk about big cats?

A: We’d be lion if we said “no”.

Q: Hilarious. My big question is which ones are the same as others but just have a different name for the colour or pattern. Does that make sense?

A: It does. And you’re right, a lot of big cats do belong to the same family – known as “Panthera”.

Q: Wait, isn’t that also a heavy metal band?

A: Close – but you’re thinking of the band Pantera, who actually started touring again after 20 years. 

Q: Ah, okay. So what cats are in this “Panthera” family?

A: The tiger, lion, jaguar, leopard and snow leopard. A tiger has stripes and a Jaguar, leopard and snow leopard all have patterned “rosettes”.

Q: So can I address the elephant in the room?

A: Yes please, before all these big cats get to it.

Q: Well, with a family name like “Panthera” – where is the PANTHER? Isn’t it black or pink or something?

A: Well, the cartoon character “The Pink Panther” and its iconic theme tune were both created in 1963 for the opening sequence to a live action comedy-mystery film by the same name. It featured Inspector Jacques Clouseau (originally portrayed by Peter Sellers) – and the Pink Panther in that film was actually the name of a diamond.

Q: How odd. But there was a cartoon series about a pink panther too, right?

A: Yes, it was basically a spin-off from that film.

Q: And Jacques Clouseau also had lots of undersea adventures, oui?

A: Non. You’re confusing the fictional character with the very real 20th century explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Q: I knew there was something fishy about him.

A: Shall we look at black panthers now?

Q: Yes please. Wakanda Forever!

A: No, not that one. The important thing here is that a panther is not actually a separate species. A “black panther” simply refers to the black pigmented version of two of the panthera animals – the leopard and jaguar. You can usually still see the rosettes on the black.

Q: Okay, but what about cougars? It’s not just the term some people use for older women having fun, right?

A: Haha, cougars are a thing – although pay attention as it gets a little confusing. Remember how the “Panthera” family had five species in it? 

Q: I remember it like it was just one minute ago.

A: Okay, good. Because there is also the “Puma” family and that has just ONE species in it – the cougar.

Q: Soooo, but… wait. Then WHAT is a puma?

A: Exactly. Just like the panther, there is no separate cat called a puma, HOWEVER, the American cougar has since 1730 also been called a LOT of names – including a mountain lion, puma concolor, catamount or panther. They’re the same thing.

Q: Wait, PANTHER? What’s that doing in this family? Didn’t we cover that already?

A: Okay, don’t get your panthers in a knot. It is a bit messy. UK English typically associates the name “panther” solely with the black varieties of leopards or jaguars. However, in America – where cougars roam the hills – ‘panther’ is also synonymous with that species of mountain lion.

Q: So let’s recap. We’ve only really looked at six cats so far. Lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars and snow leopards in one family. And the cougar in the other, yeah?

A: That’s it. Black panthers are actually leopards or jaguars, while cougars can also go by a lot of names – including panther.

Q: What a mess.

A: Oh, just wait until they start crossbreeding!

Q: Ugggh. But first, where do “cheetahs”  fit into this?

A: They belong to a third family called “Acinonyx” – of which they’re the only living member. And while they might look like a skinny leopard at first glance (its name ‘chita’ even came from Hindu for “leopard”), they’re actually unrelated – with solid spots whereas a leopard has those rosette things we mentioned earlier.

Q: A leopard never changes its rosettes!

A: That’s right. Although it has changed its classification over time. The name “leopard” came from the Latin “lion” (leo) and “panther” (pard) – back when people thought it was a hybrid of these two animals. Science would later prove otherwise, but the name stuck.

Q: Speaking of science and hybrids, you mentioned crossbreeding?

A: That’s right. The Panthera family of cats have been cross bred in captivity. The naming rule is that the male goes at the start. So a male lion with a female tiger is a “liger”. A male tiger with a female lion is a “tigon”. Other combos include “leopons” (male leopard, female lion) and a “liguar” (male lion, female jaguar).

Q: Ligers and tigons and hybrids, oh my!

A: Haha, yeah, best not to dwell too much on those.

Q: A tail of two kitties!

A: Indeed.

Q: Well, thanks for helping me herd all these cats. Who knew that panthers and pumas were just other cats in disguise?

A: We did. We knew.

Q: Okay, I’m going to press “PAWS” on this topic now!

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!


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