Southern tiger cat

Leopardus guttulus

IUCN Red List: Vulnerable

Weight: 1.8-3.5 kg
Body length: 38-59 cm
Tail length: 20-42 cm
Longevity: 15-21 years
Litter size: 1-4 cubs, average 1


The tiger cats (Leopardus tigrinus/Leopardus guttulus) are part of the ocelot lineage, one of the youngest of all cat lineages. They pose an exquisite genetic puzzle. They were recently acknowledged as two distinct species, given their genetic differentiation. However, it is likely that the current Central American subspecies, called Leopardus tigrinus oncilla, comprises a different species too. The Costa Rican population and the one of Central and Southern Brazil (now called Leopardus guttulus) have been isolated for approximately 3.7 million years. These two populations show a high level of divergence comparable to the one between species of the Leopardus genus and both populations have a low genetic diversity. To add more genetic oddity for the tiger cat species, there has been ancient historic hybridization between the pampas cat (L. colocola) and L. tigrinus, and ongoing bi-directional hybridization between L. guttulus with the Geoffroy’s cat (L. geoffroyi). However, there has been no indication of mixing whatsoever between the two former single species. In other words, tiger cats mixed with other species but not between themselves! The Southern tiger cat is recognised as a monotypic species. 

The tiger cats are small cats with a slender body, proportioned like a house cat (Brazilian, i.e. slender built, not bulky like European or American house cats). However, whereas some individuals look small, weighing only 1.8 kg, others are large with a weight of ca. 3.5 kg. Both species present the same body measurements. Males are slightly, but significantly, larger than females.  At first glance, the tiger cat species seem to be cryptic. However, they do show some subtle differentiation on ground color, spot pattern, and morphology, which are not easy to tell apart. Typically, the northern tiger cat (L. tigrinus) has a pale yellow to and slightly ochraceous base color, which is marked by small dots that tend to form an open rosette. The southern tiger cat, on the other hand, shows a more ochraceous or yellowish-brown ground color, with open rosettes that are slightly larger and rounder than the former’s. Melanism is common in both species. On the one hand, the northern tiger cat has a lighter built, seeming often to have slender body, legs and tail. The southern tiger cat, on the other hand, tends to look slightly stockier, with a thicker tail and smaller rounder ears. Nevertheless, individuals of both species can diverge from their norm and some do look very cryptic. The paler belly fur is covered with dark spots. The large ears of both species have a black backside with a central white spot. The southern tiger cat’s tail has seven to thirteen irregular thin rings, and a black tip. The northern tiger cat has a less conspicuous, thinly ringed tail. In both species the tail measures about 60% of the head and body length. Both tiger cats look very similar to the margay (L. wiedii), making it difficult to distinguish the three. The tiger cats’ fur is not as thick however, its patterns tend to be less dark and blotchy, with abundant solid dot-like spots and open rosettes, which tend to be smaller and more numerous. Moreover, its body is more slender, its paws proportional to its size, and its tail shorter than that of the margay. In all tiger cats the nape hair slants backwards, differently from both ocelot and margay, but similar to Geoffroy’s cat. The southern tiger cat looks similar to Geoffroy’s cat, with whom it hybridizes. It differs by being smaller, without a bulky head and without the typical paired dots that usually do not form rosettes in the latter.

Other names




gato tigre chico, gato onza chico, gato pintado chico, chivi


gato-do-mato, maracajá-í, pintadinho, gato-macambira, gato-maracajá


southern little spotted cat


chat tigre du sud, oncille


Onzille, Kleinfleckenkatze, Ozelotkatze, Zwergtigerkatze


tigrillo, tirica, gato tigre 

Status and Distribution

The southern tiger cat is classified as Vulnerable in the IUCN Red List. Population decline by almost 50% in 8 years was observed in Santa Catarina state, Brazil, one of the most important areas for the species conservation. This reduction may was caused by prey reduction. The southern tiger cat also declined in other areas by more than 50%. Its global population was estimated at 6,047 mature individuals.

Southern tiger cat population densities vary, but tend to be low throughout most of its range, especially in regard to what would be expected of such a small cat species. Given its body size, expected density would be 91 individuals per 100 km². Meanwhile, southern tiger cat occurs at densities typically of 1-5/100 km². Especially in protected areas it is very rare, most probably due to the negative impact of the ocelot. Only in a few areas, where ocelots are absent or rare, it reaches densities of 15–25/100 km².

The southern tiger cat ranges from Central to southern Brazil, eastern Paraguay and north-eastern Argentina. The species is absent from the Paraguayan Chaco. The population in Bolivia would probably be assigned to L. tigrinus. The northern limits of its geographic range are still unclear. It reaches Central Brazil in the states of Minas Gerais, Goiás and the Atlantic forest of central-south Bahia in the northeast region. Whether it overlaps with Leopardus tigrinus and to what extent is still not known. 

Extant distribution area of the Southern tiger cat (IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016).


The southern tiger cat inhabits a variety of habitats, from dense tropical and subtropical rainforests, deciduous/semi-deciduous, and mixed pine forests, to the open savannah, and beach vegetation, both pristine and disturbed. In the Pantanal (wet/swampy savannah), it is very rare and has been recorded only in the dry savannas, not in the marshy areas. The southern tiger cat can also inhabit disturbed formations. Its occurrence near agricultural fields is nevertheless limited by the presence of natural cover. Thus, in mosaics of forest or savannah, and small-scale agriculture, both telemetry information and scat analysis, indicate that it uses the natural formations and does not venture deep into the agricultural areas per se, but only uses their borders. Moreover, in such areas rodent abundance can be elevated.Known altitudinal range of the southern tiger cat is below 2,000 m.

Ecology and Behaviour

The southern tiger cat is a solitary felid. It is active predominantly at night, but can also show a considerable level of diurnal activity. This activity during any time of the day is suggested to be a strategy to avoid predation by the larger sympatric ocelot. In areas where ocelots occur, both tiger cats, as well as the margay and jaguarundi tend to be rare because of potential intra-guild predation/competition. This negative impact of the ocelot on smaller cat species is called the “ocelot effect”. Thus, tiger cat numbers are negatively impacted by the larger ocelot by interspecific killing due to potential for competition. On the other hand, tiger cat numbers are not affected by those of margay and jaguarundi, which are in fact more potential competitors than the much larger ocelot.

Tiger cats are excellent climbers, but spend most of their time on the ground as most of its prey is terrestrial. Small prey is killed with a nape bite, but larger prey tends to be attacked first on the back. Feeding starts on the head or neck. When threatened tiger cats show an aggressive behavior with arched back and raised hair, besides showing the teeth and producing a “whistling-spiting” vocalization. It seems that both species of tiger cats present very similar habits, which makes it still hard to set them apart ecologically.

Home ranges of the tiger cats are 2.5 times larger than they would be expected, based on the cat’s body size. This may be another consequence to avoid larger and potential felid predators. Very few studies on home ranges have been conducted. Known home ranges for the southern tiger cat range from 2 to 25 km². Female ranges are smaller than the ones of males.

Very little information about the tiger cat’s reproduction is available. Reproduction occurs year round, but could show different peaks in different areas. The gestation period lasts for 75-78 days, after which 1-4 cubs are born, but on average 1.12. The eyes are open at 8–17 days. Weaning occurs at two to three months and young are almost about adult body size at 11 months of age. However, sexual maturity is achieved only at about 2-2.5 years, which is rather very late for a felid this size. The lifetime number of young potentially produced by a seven year old female tiger cat in the wild is generally up to five. This shows a very low reproductive potential, considering its small size and, especially, compared to other felids from other continents.


The southern tiger cat preys mainly on small vertebrates (weighing less than 100 g) like mice, shrews, birds and lizards. However, occasionally larger prey (0.7–1.5 kg, or larger than 1.5 kg) like small primates, agoutis and whistling-ducks are also taken. Mean prey mass tends to be 145 g. It has been suggested that very small sized prey (especially around 50 g) have a larger numerical contribution, while medium sized prey (> 700 g) contribute more in terms of biomass. Insects and plant matter are also occasionally found in tiger cat's scats. However, these items do not contribute to the energy intake per se. 

Main Threats

The main threat to the southern tiger cat is habitat loss and fragmentation due to deforestation. This felid inhabits Brazil’s most threatened biomes, the Atlantic forest and Cerrado. The first is highly fragmented and has lost more than 92% of its natural cover, while in the latter the loss was more than 55%, and is still on the rise due to the grain’s frontier. The tiger cat shows very low densities in protected areas, where it is found, and populations are severely fragmented, making it even more vulnerable to habitat conversion. Killing due to poultry depredation and road kills are further threatening the southern tiger cat, as well as competition and diseases spread by domestic dogs. Hybridization with Geoffroy’s cat could also possibly threaten the southern tiger cat, as well as changes in native species dynamics.

Although the international trade in furs was heavily reduced, illegal hunting and capturing (apparently limited) still takes place, mostly for the local market or for the pet trade. Historical trade on tiger cats (which would include both species) from 1976 to 1985 consisted of astonishing 352,508 skins, which would represent about 28% of all trade on Neotropical felids in that period, second only to Geoffroy’s cat.

Another problem is the lack of knowledge of this cat species. Very little information is available about the southern tiger cat’s ecology and status, making it difficult to assess threats and their impact.

Conservation Efforts and Protection Status

Since the southern tiger cat was separated from Leopardus tigrinus, its inclusion on CITES Appendix I is necessary to be made. It is protected over part of its range. Hunting is prohibited in Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay.

As the southern tiger cat does not occur in high numbers anywhere and ocelots are the dominant and most abundant felid in most protected areas, southern tiger cat is probably most frequent outside protected areas, where habitats are undergoing high rates of destruction and/or are highly fragmented. Thus, conservation efforts should be focused on the areas outside protected areas. The state of Santa Catarina in Brazil has been considered to harbor the best and likely most viable population of the southern tiger cat, given the extent of its remaining Atlantic forest and the cat’s presence in decent numbers in local Conservation Units, mostly due to the absence of ocelots. Nevertheless, no conservation units within the southern tiger cat’s range in Brazil are expected to house even 500 individuals, with most expected to sustain far less than 200.

Further research on the ecology, natural history and threats is urgently needed for both species of tiger cats. To monitor and understand the extent of hybridization with Geoffroy’s cat is another research priority.