International Society For Endangered Cats

A Voice For The Wild Cats of the World

Featured Feline: Oncilla

The oncilla Leopardus tigrinus is one of the smallest cat species in the Americas, averaging 2-3 kg (4-8 lbs). Very little is understood of their behaviour or ecology in the wild. These rare little cats are known by a variety of names, depending on their location: oncilla, tigrina, little spotted cat, and tiger cat are some of the more common forms.

Oncilla by Peter Cromer

This species is found in a broad range of habitats, but is especially associated with denser cover. In Central America and parts of northern South America, it seems to be most common in montane cloud forest, but in Brazil, it is mostly found in lowland areas, and it has been reported from rainforests to semi-arid thorny scrub, and degraded areas in close proximity to human settlement.

Oncillas 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 Leopardus wiedii. Large oncillas and small margays are about the same size and share the same habitats, but oncillas generally take smaller prey. The limited information available on their food habits suggest they eat rodents, small primates, birds, insects, and reptiles.They are thought to be nocturnal and solitary, except for mating.

In Central America the species rarely shows up in camera traps even where they are known to occur, suggesting they either avoid traps or are naturally rare and elusive. A similar trend is also found in several areas in Brazil, where researchers with the Wild Cats of Brazil Project found low oncilla numbers.

The oncilla is negatively impacted by the presence of the ocelot Leopardus pardalis, and when these larger cats are absent, oncilla numbers increase. It is found mostly outside protected areas in the Cerrado and Atlantic Forest biomes, which are both under severe threat, and where ocelots are absent or have declined. Oncilla populations are severely fragmented and are being reduced further by habitat conversion to plantations and pasture.

The oncilla was heavily exploited for the fur trade decades ago, following the decline of the ocelot trade. Although international trade ceased, there is still some localized illegal hunting, usually for the domestic market. Current threats to this species include habitat loss, fragmentation, roads, illegal trade (pets and pelts), retaliatory killing due to depredation of poultry.

Hybridization with Geoffroy’s cat as been found in the southernmost part of its range, and also with the pampas cat in central Brazil. This may be a natural process and the extent of this as a threat to the oncillla is unknown.

Genetic analyses found a level of divergence between oncillas from Costa Rica and from central and southern Brazil, suggesting that the two populations have been isolated, perhaps by the Amazon River, for approximately 3.7 million years. More analysis is needed to confirm whether the oncilla should be split into two separate species.

The only unquestionable thing we know about the oncilla is that these tiny little cats are clearly in trouble.

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