- HB Length: 46-79 cm (18-31″)
- Tail Length: 23-52 cm (9-20″)
- Height: Appr. 30 cm (12″)
- Weight: 2.3-4.9 kg (5-11 lbs)
Margays Leopardus wiedii are among the most beautiful and mysterious of the spotted cats. A largely arboreal species, they are midway in size between the Ocelot, Leopardus pardalis, and the Oncilla, Leopardus tigrinus. Their soft, plush coat is brownish yellow through tan, with black spots, stripes and blotches running lengthwise along their body. The centre of each spot, or rosette, is slightly paler, but still darker than the ground colour of the fur. The belly, chest, throat, chin, and insides of the legs are a snowy white. On the Margay, as on the Ocelot, the fur turns forward in the nape region, and the hairs on the neck are directed towards the crown. They have two dark cheek stripes on each side of the face. Their tail, as in many arboreal mammals, is very long, as much as 70% of the body length, and marked with broad rings, and a black tip. The backs of the large, rounded ears are black with a white central spot. Their eyes are enormous, and dark brown.
As a mainly tree dwelling animal, Margays are restricted to forest habitat, and closely associated with dense lowland forest below 1,500 m. They have been found in humid tropical evergreen and deciduous forests, montane and cloud forests, wet, swampy savannas and occasionally coffee and cocoa plantations with large trees. Mexico is the northernmost limit of their distribution, which ranges down through Central and South America to northern Argentina.
Margays are intolerant of altered habitat, refusing to cross open areas with no cover. They avoid converted landscapes except for dense plantations of coffee, cocoa, Eucalyptus and pine. A study in northern Argentina also found lower Margay densities in parks and other protected areas, possibly due to the high population of Ocelots.
A field study carried out in Belize found daytime resting areas in trees seven to ten metres above the ground, and the home range of the male was about 11 km2. Camera trapping in Belize suggested a population of less than five individuals per 100 km2, with extremes of twenty cats per 100 km2. A Brazilian radio telemetry study, maintained over 18 months, found home ranges to be 16 km2.
Researchers in the El Cielo Biosphere Reserve in northeastern Mexico trapped nine individuals in 2.5 months of intensive field work, indicating high Margay abundance. Four males in the study were found to have average home ranges of 4 km2, and their ranges overlapped by 29%. Each cat maintained a core area that was about half the size of their home range. The apparently high numbers in the study area may be due to the absence of the Ocelot from this quality habitat. A camera trap study in central Mexico estimated Margay density at 12 cats per 100 km2.
Margays are the wizards of the tree tops, and are beautifully adapted to their arboreal habitat. One unique characteristic allows them to move and hunt more effectively in the trees. Their broad, soft feet and mobile toes allow them to hang from tree limbs by one hind foot, and flexible ankles can rotate the foot 180 degrees outward. They are exceedingly quick, and even during a fall they can grab hold of a branch with one front or hind paw and climb up again. Broad soft feet provide a good platform for jumping and an effective gripping surface for climbing.
Their exceptionally long, heavy tail aids in balancing while moving from tree to tree. In some areas, Margays hunt, sleep, and even have their young in trees. When they do descend the trees, they walk slowly head first down the trunk, unlike most cats who rush down or descend hind feet first. Captive cats have been seen jumping nearly six metres straight in the air and nine metres horizontally.
They are primarily nocturnal, as indicated by their huge eyes. Information on their lives in the wild is very limited, but it is thought most of their hunting is done above the ground. A study in the Atlantic Rainforest of Brazil determined birds were the most consumed prey species (55%) followed by reptiles (41%).
Their spectacular agility even allows them to capture small primates, a feat the larger Ocelot cannot manage. In 2005, primate scientists in the Amazon rain forest of Brazil heard a Margay imitating the call of a baby pied tamarin monkey. It was the first scientifically documented case of a cat imitating a prey species in the Americas. Though the high-pitched squeal was a “poor imitation” of a baby, it was similar enough to attract curious adult tamarins feeding nearby to come closer and investigate.
Margays are solitary except for a mother with kittens. After a gestation period of approximately 76 – 85 days, a single kitten, (rarely two), is born once a year. Unlike other wild cat species, Margays have only one pair of mammary glands, and can ovulate spontaneously. Birth weight is 84 – 170 grams, and their eyes open at about two weeks of age. The young are darker than the adults, and have uniformly dark spots and dark grey paws. Weaning takes place at around two months, and sexual maturity is reached at about two years. They have been known to live to 20 years of age in captivity.
Known locally as tree ocelot, little ocelot or tigrillo, very little is known of the Margay’s ecology, status or abundance. They are more strongly associated with forest habitat than any other Neotropical cat. When these forests are destroyed, these small cats are unable to adjust to the newly disturbed habitat. Unwilling to cross cleared areas, they are then restricted to small patches of forest where inbreeding and lack of prey are likely outcomes. Forest destruction is the main threat to these small cats.
Until trade restrictions in the late 1980′s, the Margay was one of the four most heavily exploited cats for the fur trade. In some areas they are still hunted illegally for their pelts and persecuted as poultry killers. In 1991, it was found that the Margay was the most common pelt in the southern Mexico skin trade, despite its protected status.
The combination of over-hunting for fur, capture for the pet trade and massive deforestation has virtually decimated wild populations of this beautiful little cat. They have never been common, and are rarer in general than the Ocelot, both in the wild and in captivity.
Photo Ben Williams
Range map IUCN Red List 2008