- HB Length:43-88 cm (17-34″)
- Tail Length:23-40 cm (9-16″)
- Height:15-25 cm (6-10″)
- Weight:1.8-7.8 kg (4-17 lbs)
Although they are one of the most widespread felids in the open areas of South America, Geoffroy’s Cats Leopardus geoffroyi are another of the little known, small spotted cats of the world. Their coat ranges from brilliant ochre in the northern parts of their range, to a silvery grey in the south, with intermediate shades in between. Numerous small, round, black dots of nearly equal size are placed at equal distances from one another, and form a black ‘necklace’ on the chest. They have several black streaks on the crown and two on each cheek. Underparts are lighter and also marked with solid spots.
The legs are fairly stout, and banded on the upper portion with spots extending down to the toes. The black tipped tail, which is about half of the head-body length, has several black rings. Large, rounded ears are black on the outside and flagged with white central spots. Irises vary from deep golden to a greenish-grey.
In addition to the spotted form, there is also a melanistic variety found more commonly in the forested and wetland areas. Four sub species vary considerably in coat colour and size. The largest cats are from the southern parts of their range, and have a longer, paler coat. As they extend to the north up into Paraguay, they are smaller and darker. Cats from northern Argentina were once considered a separate species because of their indistinct spotting, and called ‘salt desert cats’. In some areas, Geoffroy’s cats can be confused with related species, the KodkodLeopardus guigna and the Pampas Cat Leopardus colocolo.
Geoffroy’s Cats are distributed throughout the pampas grasslands, marsh grasslands, dry chaco shrub woodlands, and the alpine salt desert of northwest Argentina. Most of their range is semi-arid, but they prefer areas with dense vegetation.
These small cats have been found between sea level and 3,300 metres in Bolivia, Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil. They can be encountered in the foothills of the Patagonian Andes, but not in the conifer forests where they are replaced by the Kodkod. Much of their range is shared by the Pampas Cat.
In southern Brazil, the northern-most part of their range, the population overlaps with that of the Oncilla Leopardus tigrinus. Both these cats are morphologically similar in body proportions and appearance, and researchers have observed a small number of hybrids between the two species.
Home range sizes in wet pampas grasslands of Argentina averaged 2.5-3.4 km2 with male territories 25% larger than those of females. Home ranges in Chile were 2.3-6.5 km2 for two females, and 10.9-12.4 km2 for two females. Male ranges overlap those of one or more females.
During a drought period in Argentina, densities ranged from 2-36 cats/100 km2, but increased to 139/100 km2 two years later. In the Bolivian Chacao, densities were 2-42 cats/100 km2.
Geoffroy’s Cats spend most of their time on the ground, though they climb well and spend some time in trees. . Good swimmers, local people call them ‘fishing cats’ and claim that they readily enter water. In Chile, one female was known to have crossed a 30 metre wide fast-flowing river at least 20 times. Generally, however, the local common name is ‘gato de montes’, meaning cat of the mountains.
The Geoffroy’s Cat has been described as an opportunistic predator feeding on whatever is most abundant. They hunt mainly on the ground, but may also hunt in water for frogs and fish. In southern Chile, the introduced European hare occurred in more than 50% of all feces examined, and one cat was seen carrying a large hare carcass up into the trees.
A study in Argentina however, found their diet was mainly rodents throughout the year, with birds being well represented in spring and summer. The European hare made less of a contribution to their diet.
Studies in Argentina also found that forest fragments are important for faecal and scent-marking sites, while the grasslands and marshes are used for hunting and resting. Geoffroy’s Cats are nocturnal, with activity peaks in the middle of the night. Cats in the study used both natural and highly modified farmland, but preferred patches with high and dense cover.
A comparison study found that, in habitat modified by cattle grazing and ranches, Geoffroy’s Cats were more active, travelled greater distances and had larger home ranges than those in protected areas. This behaviour likely indicates a small number of available prey than in the protected area which would have a large portion of natural vegetation. Larger home ranges may also indicate a lower population density of the cats.
Geoffroy’s Cats in both study areas showed lower activity levels in winter, during which time hares were found to be an important food item. These animals are much larger than prey consumed throughout the year, thus the cats don’t need to hunt as often.
Cats in the modified area were also active at dawn and dusk, as well as during the night. Resting areas included trees, small patches of tall grass, vizcacha burrows, and a car tire in a garbage pile. During night sightings Geoffroy’s Cats were seen rapidly crossing agricultural fields; in semi-natural grassland patches close to a stream; along the railroad and in small patches of introduced trees next to a small lake. Five areas where the cats repeatedly deposited feces were found, all associated with trees, in the roots or among large fallen branches.
Gestation is approximately 72 – 78 days, with one to four young being born annually in a well protected den between rocks, or in dense shrub. Birth weight is 60 – 100 grams. The kittens are weaned in about eight to ten weeks. Females are sexually mature around 18 months and males about 24 months. In comparison with the domestic cat, young Geoffroy’s develop quite slowly. Longevity is up to 18 years.
The fur trade has taken a heavy toll on the Geoffroy’s Cat, as theirs is the second most commonly sold cat pelt in the international market. Only bobcat pelts are more numerous. European Union restrictions and some protective measures may have limited recent trade, but lack of standardization in managing and reporting harvest numbers in their various range countries make it difficult to assess the current effect of ongoing hunting.
In central Argentina, human related mortality made up 62% of the known deaths, including poaching, killing by domestic dogs and vehicle collisions. The cats are also shot for meat and for preying on domestic poultry.
An overwhelming demand on the species comes from the exotic pet trade, where Geoffroy’s cats are captured illegally and bred with domestic cats to produce hybrid animals for pets known as ‘safari cats.’
Crucial habitat is being rapidly lost over the range of this cat due to deforestation. Recent studies in Argentina however, indicate this species may utilize the resulting open areas as well.
Photo copyright Charles Barilleaux
Range map IUCN Red List (2008)