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Ocelot

OcelotLeopardus-pardalis75

endangered cats

  • HB Length: 50-101 cm (20-40″)
  • Tail Length: 30-50 cm (12-20″)
  • Height: 40-50 cm (16-20″)
  • Weight: 8-15 kg (17-33 lbs)

Ocelots Leopardus pardalis are one of the more beautiful feline species. Their coat is short and soft, forming two whorls on the shoulder, the hairline on the neck being directed towards the crown. Ground colour varies from whitish or tawny yellow to reddish grey. Markings run into chain-like streaks and blotches, forming elongate spots bordered with black enclosing an area darker than the ground colour. The head is rather large with two black cheek stripes on each side surrounding an almost white area. Irises are brown or golden. The underside is snowy white with black spots, and the tail is ringed or barred with black on the upper side, whitish on the underside, and black tipped. Relatively short, stout legs, with large padded feet, are marked with solid black spots and bars. Like most wild cats, the backs of the rounded ears are black with a white central spot.

Distribution

ocelot range mapThe only medium sized cat found in the tropics, Ocelots are one of the most widespread and successful Neotropical cat species. They occur primarily in subtropical areas, from southern Texas through Central America and most of tropical South America to northern Argentina. Although there is a very small remnant population in southern Texas, Ocelots seen in Arizona may be occasional wanderers from Mexico.

Ocelots inhabit a variety of habitats, from humid tropical forests, dense thorny chaparral, dry scrub, savannas to coastal mangrove and swamp forests. They can be found from sea level to 1200 m.

This is one of the few small cat species that has been studied in several different habitat types. Home range sizes vary from 4-90 km2 for males to 1-75 km2 for females. Male ranges overlap those of several females. Densities in Belize vary from 2.3-11/100 km2. Densities in Brazil average 22-32 cats per 100 km2, which is much higher than that for other small wild cats in the same habitat.

A camera trap study found much higher densities in wildlife corridors, which are used by the cats to move between forest fragments. In fragmented landscapes they were much more likely to use riparian corridors, relying on the shrubs and trees for protective cover.

Throughout much of their large geographic range, the Ocelot lives alongside the smaller Margay Leopardus wiedii and Oncilla Leopardus tigrinus. Although they take much larger prey than the other two species, studies have shown that the presence of Ocelots in a given area means lower numbers of the smaller cats.

Conversely, Ocelot density does not seem to be impacted by the larger Jaguar Panthera onca and Puma Puma concolor which also share much of the same range. In Costa Rica, one scat study during the rainy season found that Ocelots were the second most common prey species eaten by Jaguars, while a follow up survey in the dry season found no predation by the larger cats.

Ecology

Primarily nocturnal, these powerfully built cats are solitary and territorial. Their prey species are mostly ground dwelling, and the cats may cover large carcasses with debris for later consumption. Ocelots are generalists, and their diet varies with prey availability.

Athough most of their prey species weigh over one kilogram, in the seasonally flooded savannahs of Venezuela, they feed exclusively on land crabs when they become abundant during the wet season. Strong swimmers, Ocelots take aquatic and semi-aquatic prey throughout the year. A high portion of grass (20%) is consumed, a trait shared by other New World carnivores.

Active 12-14 hours per day, they rest during the day in brushpiles, clumps of vines or amid the roots of large trees. Although they are generally more active at night, some daytime hunting occurs during the wet season, particularly on cloudy or overcast days.

They spend the majority of their time walking slowly throughout their range, often strolling down game trails looking for prey. They are also ‘sit and wait’ predators, sitting motionless for 30-60 minutes at a den or burrow site, then moving rapidly to another site where they sit and wait again.

Researchers have found that these cats cross and re-cross their home range in search of prey, sometimes covering their entire range every two to four days. Males generally travel twice as far as females due to their higher energy requirements, and the need to check on the sexual condition of the females within their range.

Reproduction

After a 70 – 80 day gestation, one to three kittens are born in a dense thicket or among the roots of a fallen tree. The young remain in and around the den for several weeks, and remain dependent on their mother for several months. Sexual maturity is reached at about a year and a half for females and two and a half years for males. They disperse from their mother’s range at about two years. Wild Ocelots may breed year round in the tropics, however the Texas cats show a fall breeding peak which could be a factor limiting their expansion into more northern habitat. Longevity has been reported at 27 years in a captive situation.

Conservation

Ocelots have been associated not only with dense cover but also use adjacent open areas, including boundary areas of agricultural fields. They are moderately tolerant of human disturbance, and can co-exist with people if not persecuted.

This species has been exploited in the wild by the pet trade, with the usual method of capture being to kill the mother to obtain the kittens. These cats can still be found in local markets in Central and South America for sale to the tourists as pets, although it is illegal to transport them without permits. As with most predators, they are occasionally shot on sight as alleged livestock killers.

One of the greatest threats to the species in Texas has been the automobile. Patches of suitable habitat are widely spaced and the migration of juveniles looking for their own territory result in the death of many animals as they cross roads. Conservationists and universities are working to establish corridors between habitat patches that will allow the animals to migrate safely. The estimated population of the Texas Ocelot is less than 100 animals.

During the 1970′s and 80′s, the Ocelot population was decimated by the fur trade, with as many as 200,000 hundred thousand taken annually. The implementation of strict controls has seen a marked decrease in the number killed, although some are still taken illegally.

Like all wild cat species, the population is declining due to pressures from habitat destruction, and the resulting lack of prey species.

Watch this video on the Texas Ocelots or compare these cats to the very similar Margay.

Range map IUCN Red List 2008

Updated 2012

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