- HB Length: 38-59 cm (15-23″)
- Tail Length: 20-42 cm (7.8-16″)
- Height: Appr. 20 cm (8″)
- Weight: 1.8-3.5 kg (4-8 lbs)
Oncillas Leopardus tigrinus are one of the smallest cat species in the Americas, averaging 2.5 kg. Their coat is light brown to rich ochre or grey, with very dark brown or black spots and blotches. Melanistic Oncillas do occur. The underparts are lighter with solitary black spots. Limbs are spotted on the outside, and the long tail has spots at the root, developing into black rings. They are daintily built cats, with a narrow head and a white line above the eyes. The large ears are rounded and black on the outside with a conspicuous white central spot. The irises are golden or light brown. The fur is firm, lies close to the skin and does not turn forward in the nape region as it does on the Ocelot Leopardus pardalis and Margay Leopardus wiedi.
These tiny cats are found from Venezuela to northern Argentina. There is also a separate population in central Costa Rica through to Panama. Genetic studies have shown a divergence in the two populations, suggesting the two might be separate species that have been isolated for 3.7 million years. The distribution of these cats is similar to that of the Margay and Ocelot, but is patchier in the Amazon basin with several large gaps.
Oncillas are thought to show a strong preference for montane cloud forest at higher levels than the Margay or Ocelot. In Columbia, they are restricted to elevations above 1,500 m and have been found as high as 3,600 m in Costa Rica.
A study in Brazil however, found them intensively using restinga, a coastal scrub characterized by medium sized trees and shrubs growing in sandy soil. They were the only felid found in this habitat. Their density was estimated at 0.87 animals per km2, which is very high for a Neotropical felid.
Negatively impacted by the presence of larger cats, the density of Oncillas in the Amazon forest of Brazil is higher outside of protected areas. Camera trapping, scats and tracks indicated the small cats were more likely to be found in areas where Jaguars Panthera onca and Ocelots are absent. A study in northern Argentina also found lower densities in parks and other protected areas.
Home ranges in Brazil were found to be larger than predicted from their small body size at 0.9 – 2.8 km2 for females and 4.8-17 km2 for males. Densities varied from one to five cats per 100 km2.
Most aspects of this felid’s natural history in the wild remain unknown as they are small, nocturnal cats who live in thick vegetation.
These small cats are good climbers, and very agile in the trees, but they do not walk slowly down tree trunks in a headfirst position as does the Margay. Large Oncillas and small Margays are about the same size and share the same habitats, but Oncillas take more ground dwelling prey that weigh less than 100 grams, while the Margays hunt mainly in the trees.
The Brazil rainforest study found their activity was nocturnal in forest areas, but they were active during daylight hours in the semi-arid thorn scrub. They preferred edge areas between open and closed vegetation which always contain high numbers of small rodents. Many records also came from areas disturbed by human settlement, suggesting that larger cats have been eliminated from these areas.
The study in the restinga found most activity was nocturnal (47%) with considerable amounts of crepuscular and daytime activity, possibly due to the lack of other cat species. The cats used all habitats in the area, including areas close to human structures. The main prey species were rodents, followed by birds and reptiles.
In northeastern Brazil their activity level was more diurnal, with the main prey species being lizards and birds. Rodents comprised only a small part of their diet in this habitat.
The female’s oestrous period lasts several days, and adult males can be very aggressive towards females. Gestation in captivity is about 74 – 76 days, with a litter size of one to three kittens each weighing from 58 – 116 grams. Their eyes open around 17 days, and the kittens are weaned at about two to three months. Sexual maturity is achieved at approximately one year. They have lived to 23 years of age in captivity.
Known as little spotted cat, tiger cat, ocelot cat or tigrillo, these terms are also used to describe the Margay and Ocelot, and the geographical distribution of all three overlap extensively.
Oncillas can easily be mistaken for Margays or young Ocelots, which means their presence in any area may be difficult to determine. Researchers in Brazil found that only a few former hunters and the most experienced native people could tell the three species apart.
In 2003, the first picture of these cats in the wild was taken by camera trap in Brazil. Records of these cats are scarce in the Amazon. This may be due to their scattered distribution, a lack of sightings or evidence of their natural rarity. Vast tracts of land in the Amazon remain to be surveyed for wild cat presence.
In southern Brazil their range overlaps with that of the Geoffroy’s Cat Leopardus geoffroyi, and there is some evidence of hybridization between the two species.
Oncillas have been widely hunted for the fur trade throughout their range. A report on South American cats in trade between 1976 and 1982 showed Oncillas to be one of the four most heavily exploited small cats. It is difficult to assess the threats to this species when so little is known about it. Coffee plantations are often established in cloud forest habitat, but observations of the Oncilla in deforested areas and eucalyptus plantations on the outskirts of Sao Paulo, Brazil suggest tolerance of habitat alteration.
Oncillas are threatened by habitat loss for cattle ranching and agriculture, local trade for pets and trapped for raiding chicken coops along with other small wild cats.
Photo Milan Korniek
Range map IUCN Red List 2008