Oncilla Preservation Organization Seeks To Shed Light On South American “Mystery Cat”

As we have noted there are about 40 species of wild cats on earth ranging from the tiny Rusty Spotted Cat at about two pounds up to the Siberian Tiger, the largest cat at up to 600 pounds.

A number of these cats are not well known either to the general public or to science. Among these is the Oncilla, which like the similarly named Ocelot, lives in South America. Oncillas (Leopardus tigrinus) are often mistaken for ocelots (Leopardus pardalis) and margays (Leopardus wieldi) . Perhaps that shouldn’t be too surprising as the three are part of the same lineage.

The oncilla is something of a mystery cat. Studies are ongoing to learn more about it in Central America.

Little is known about the cat which is why the Central American Oncilla Project exists.

Some things are known. The Oncilla (leopardus tigrinus) is smaller than either the ocelot or the margay. It weighs about 7 pounds and is slightly longer than a domestic cat. It is one of seven cats in the leopardus lineage, all of which live in Central and South America.

Oncillas seem to behave much like other small wildcats, eating small prey including rodents. birds and insects. They are also good at climbing.

an ocelot on a tree log
Ocelots are larger but similar in appearance. Photo by Jesús Alzamora on Pexels.com

There is a lot that is unknown, According to the project:

“Oncillas are very rare and elusive. In fact, there have been relatively few documented scientific records of Central American oncillas in the wild in the last 20 years.  Oncillas are considered to be endangered, (link in original quote) but lack of data means that their viability is highly uncertain. We simply do not know if there are stable populations in Central America, or if they are faced with imminent extinction.”

The project is using camera traps and DNA sampling of scats (droppings) to try and determine the number, diet and habits of the cats. They are also trying to determine if the Central American oncillas are a separate subspecies from other oncillas, which can be found as far south as Brazil. DNA science is opening up numerous avenues in feline science. Recently, we posted on the use of DNA tracing to help save Sumatran tigers.

We have also written a post about the ways in which feline DNA

studies may help cure diseases common to both species.

DNA science has also changed our understanding of the relationships in the greater cat family. For example the six subspecies of tigers have now been reduced to two. Tigers on the Asian mainland and tigers on the Southeast Asian islands. All tigers are greatly reduced in numbers. Those on Sumatra are threatened. There have been some successes.

Published by ursusrising

long time writer and editor living in Los Angeles

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: