By Eric Duran
When I take kids out in the park, or out on large areas of land nearby the Nature Center, I like to tell stories about what the land was like long before we we were here.
Before European settlement of the Houston area, prairie dominated the landscape here. It’s not hard to imagine what kinds of “big prairie” animals may have been prowling the landscape in the exact location where you sit or stand now, where your home or workplace stands, and where the Nature Discovery Center is located. I wanted to spend a little time this month remembering a few animals that are no longer here in Bellaire and Houston, and some of which are no longer on the planet at all.
Most of us think of jaguars as rainforest animals of Central and South America. However, they once ranged across much of the state of Texas and into Louisiana, as well as the desert southwest of the United States. Imagine a jaguar wandering around Bellaire Boulevard looking for prey. Jaguars are large, powerful predators, so you can imagine why they have disappeared from the modern American landscape. Many European settlers feared the toll that the cats would take on their livestock, and hunted them rather ruthlessly. The last known jaguar in the state of Texas was killed in the south part of the state in the 1940s.
Another wild cat that would have been found in this part of Texas was the ocelot. In Texas, ocelots were found in the arid Southern part of the state and the habitats along the coast to the southwest part of Louisiana. Ocelots, like jaguars, are known today for frequenting Mexican deserts and neo-tropical rainforests (rainforests of Central and South America). They are a small-medium sized cats, slinky and sleek in appearance.
As with other noticeable predators, settlers and farmers feared they would prey on livestock, and had ocelots exterminated across the state. Today, the species holds on by a thread in the Lower Rio Grande Valley but is endangered by continuing habitat destruction due to development and agriculture. Large barriers at the border with Mexico also threaten vital pathways between South Texas and Mexico, which the creatures need to find new mates and maintain large enough territories to find adequate prey. Thankfully, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and other non-governmental agencies are working hard to preserve ocelots in our state.
Of course a lot of animals disappeared from the Texas landscape well before there were any humans on this continent. Gomphotheres were elephant-like creatures that roamed the plains and forests of North America between one and two million years ago. They were gradually replaced by mastodons and mammoths. These odd-looking animals may have been major seed dispersers for wild avocados and osage oranges (neither tree currently has a significant seed disperser now).
These creatures lived on a landscape here in this part of Texas with giant armadillo relatives, giant sloths, dog-sized horses, and wild rhino relatives.
The Texas landscape has obviously changed a lot in the past 2 million years, but it’s good to stretch the imagination to remember what your West University or Bellaire neighborhood was like before civilization descended on the big prairie.
Duran is head naturalist at the Nature Discovery Center, 7112 Newcastle Dr., Bellaire, NatureDiscoveryCenter.org.