CatSG

Andean Cat

Leopardus jacobita

IUCN Red List: Endangered

Weight: 4-6 kg
Body length: 57-65 cm
Tail length: 41-48 cm
Longevity: unknown
Litter size: 1 cub

Description

Based on a world felid species genetic analysis there is generally strong support for the classification of the Andean cat into the genus Leopardus. Previously the Andean cat was classified as Oreailurus. This former classification was based on few specimens and in part on the relative size difference in the skull's auditory chambers, a trait which is also found in other felid species. The available information suggests that the Andean cat is closely related to the Pampas cat (Leopardus colocolo). There are no subspecies of Andean cat classically described.

The Andean cat is almost twice the size of a domestic cat. Andean cats do not seem to be sexually dimorphic in fur colour but comparison of cat skulls and data from a few live-trapped animals, suggest that there is a dimorphism in morphology and size. Its coat is very long and thick, about 40 mm on the back and 35 mm on the tail. Its coat is pale silvery grey and marked with brown-yellowish to dark grey or black blotches. Conspicuous thick dark stripes extend down the sides from the back. Prominent dark grey bars run also across its chest and the legs have narrower dark stripes or blotches which do not form complete rings. The under parts are white and marked with dark spots. Juveniles have lighter colouring and smaller blotches than adults. With its very long and thick fur the Andean cat is very well adapted to the harsh climate of its main habitat, the Andean mountains and Northern Patagonia. The tail is characteristic being very long and bushy, measuring around 70 % of the cat’s head to body length and is marked with 6-9 wide dark brown or black rings. This long tail is probably an aid to balance when the cat is hunting. The Andean cat has relatively large ears and a black nose. The Pampas cat also inhabits this region and the two species appear quite similar. They can be distinguished by the colour of the nose which is light coloured for the Pampas cat and the tail length which is longer for the Andean cat. However, detecting these differences remains difficult and therefore some diagnostic keys were developed. Similar to its main prey, the mountain vizcachas (Lagidium spp.), and its presumed former prey, the mountain chinchillas (Chinchilla chinchilla), the Andean cat has a large auditory bulla. This is typical for animals inhabiting arid environments with little cover for protection.

Other names

Language/Country

Name

Argentina

gato andino, oskollo

Bolivia

titi, titipisi, huaña titi oskollo

Chile

gato montés andino

French

chat des Andes

German

Andenkatze, Bergkatze

Peru

osjo, osjollo, titi, titipisi

Spanish

gato andino, gato lince, chinchay


Status and Distribution

The Andean cat is the most threatened cat species in the Americas and occurs at low densities. It is classified as Endangered in the IUCN Red List. The Andean cat is classified as Critically Endangered in Bolivia, Endangered in Chile and Peru and Vulnerable in Argentina. In comparison to the Pampas cat, the Andean cat is rare and genetic analysis suggests that it had a historic and a currently small population size. Two density estimations have been done, in northern Argentina and centre west of Bolivia, resulting in 7-12 and 1.8 individuals/100 km² respectively. Its status and population sizes are not well known. Its total population was estimated at 2,755 animals with 1,378 mature individuals.  

The habitat of the Andean cat is naturally fragmented and because of the uneven distribution of its prey it is quite patchily distributed. Therefore, its distribution is restricted and not connected. A population genetics study of the Andean Cat indicated a very low genetic diversity and identified two distinct Andean Cat populations: the Andean cats in the Patagonian steppe and the cats in the highlands. Based on genetic analysis and the Andean cat's distribution 10 subpopulations were identified. However, more studies are needed to confirm these subpopulations. There are no known Andean Cats in captivity.

The Andean cat occurs mainly in the high Andes of Peru and Bolivia, north of Chile and northern Argentina up to 5,000 m but recently has been found in Argentina and Chile outside the Andes, in the Patagonian steppe and scrub habitats at much lower altitudes (as low as 650 m).

 

 

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

Habitat

The Andean cat is apparently very specialized in its habitat requirements. Generally it has been found in the arid and semi-arid sparsely vegetated areas of the high Andes above the timberline at an average elevation of 4,236 m in Argentina, above 3,800 in Bolivia and between 3,714 and 4,414 m in Chile. These environments have heterogeneous geomorphology, extreme weather conditions and consist primarily of very rocky and steep terrain with patchily distributed sparse vegetation; all these characteristics are also present in northern Patagonia. Valleys with patchily distributed rock walls are the preferred habitat. Rock piles and boulders are the only type of cover available at such altitudes and are also important for its main prey, the mountain vizcachas. The occurrence of these prey species probably influences the Andean cat’s distribution and its population densities. Beside the occurrence of prey the availability of rocky slopes and watercourses appear to be important habitat features for the Andean cat. It is believed that the Andean cat’s habitat is naturally fragmented and highly fragile. The Andean cat is also found within the Andean foothills of Central Argentina and the Patagonian steppe as low as 650 m. It seems also to use the scrublands found in almost flat terrain. In the southern Andes of Argentina it was detected at 1,800m at at 2,200 m in the Atacama Region in Chile.

Its range covers four eco-regions: the high Andes, the Puna region, the southern Andean steppe and the northern portion of the Patagonian steppe. Presence is influenced by the availability of the Andean cat‘s main prey, the mountain vizcachas.

Habitat of the Andean cat in Bolivia.
Habitat of the Andean cat in Bolivia.
Habitat of the Andean cat in Chile.
Habitat of the Andean cat in Chile.

Ecology and Behaviour

There is very little known about the ecology and behaviour of the Andean cat. For a long time, knowledge about this species was derived exclusively from furs and few specimens in museums and it was hardly observed in the wild. Since the establishment of the group "Alianza Gato Andino AGA" in 1999, the information about the species is improving and the number of recent distribution records has greatly increased.

The Andean cat is a solitary species. Most sightings of Andean cats have been made during daytime. However, recent camera trap and radio telemetry studies indicate that it is possibly crepuscular and active at night which is likely to be related to the feeding habits of its main prey. The diurnal activity could be restricted to certain periods of the year. A radio-collared animal in Bolivia was mainly nocturnal and the activity pattern was similar to the ones of the mountain vizcachas. The Andean cat is probably a solitary species. It has been seen in pairs during the mating season and with cubs after giving birth. It is thought that the mating season is between July and December and that births occur between October and April.

There is no data available on territoriality. It is possible, as with most felids, that the males have larger territories than the females and that territories overlap to a certain degree between sexes. Due to the naturally fragmented habitat, territories and home ranges may be very large. The home range was 65.5km² for a radio-tracked female in Bolivia and 58.5 km² for a male in Argentina. Camera trapping in Argentina produced an estimate of 40.5 km².  

In Bolivia, the mating season is reported to be between July and August but could also be longer as cubs have been observed from April to September and in October. 

Andean cat mother with her kitten.
Andean cat in Chile.
Andean cat hunting in Chile.
Andean cats, Chile.
Andean cat in Argentina.
Andean cat in Chile.

Prey

The Andean cat feeds on small mammals, small birds, waterfowl or lizards. Its primary prey is the mountain vizcacha. A recent study in NW Argentina found that small mammals were the most frequent prey items (93% of the samples). Previously mountain chinchillas (Chinchilla spp.) were probably the most important prey but those went locally extinct and have been extirpated from most of their distribution range due to overhunting.

Mounain Vizcacha.
Andean cat with its prey.

Main Threats


Habitat fragmentation and loss are two of the main threats of the Andean cat.
Stuffed Andean cat in Peru.
Stuffed Andean cat in Bolivia.

The Andean cat is very rare and most populations are probably isolated. It is not clear whether this is due to the lack of observations and studies, a natural phenomenon due to its patchy distribution, or a result of human activity. It was believed that the main threat to this species was human hunting for different purposes but after the VI International Workshop for Andean Cat Conservation, held in Mendoza, Argentina, threats were re-assessed and habitat loss and degradation was identified as the main threat for Andean cat. Opportunistic and traditional hunting, prey reduction, and introduction of diseases are also identified as important threats to the Andean cat.

Habitat loss and fragmentation is mainly caused by extensive mining, resource extraction for fuel, expansion of agricultural activity and by inadequate livestock management. In some parts of its range these activities are increasingly affecting the Andean cat populations and need to be addressed as soon as possible. Additionally, extractive industries use a lot of water affecting these arid landscapes in ways that are still to be determined. Being such a rare species it is usually not included in environmental impact studies.

The Andean cat is hunted for its fur and dried and stuffed specimens are used for spiritual ceremonies in many parts of its distribution range. The Andean cat is considered sacred by the indigenous Aymara and Quechua traditions and is associated with rich harvests and the abundance and fertility of livestock, as well as thought to be able to transfer supernatural powers to the hunter. In central Peru, Andean cats are also hunted for food and traditional medicine, and in northern Patagonia they are heavily hunted because they are considered to be predators of small domestic livestock and therefore persecuted. This type of hunting activity represents a significant threat to the Andean cat.  

Another problem is prey reduction due to hunting of its main prey species. The originally most important prey species, the short-tailed chinchilla, is today almost extinct due to extensive hunting for its fur. It is thought that this decline has negatively affected the Andean cat populations. Today the mountain vizcacha which lives in patchily distributed small colonies is hunted for meat and fur and its population is declining locally. This may result in an even more fragmented distribution of Andean cats.

Inter-specific competition between Pampas cat and Andean cat for prey could also have a negative impact. Data from one Andean cat and one Pampas cat radio tracked in Bolivia, and preliminary data from an ongoing study on sympatric populations of Andean and Pampas cats in Argentina, indicate high overlap in both their trophic and spatial niches. Lack of knowledge and information of the species, absence of species conservation policies and poor law enforcement are limiting factors for conservation actions. 

Conservation Efforts and Protection Status

The Andean cat is included in Appendix I of CITES and it is fully protected across its range. Hunting and trade are prohibited in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Peru. However, law enforcement is difficult in most of its distribution range and in some parts non-existent.

Since 1999, the Alianza Gato Andino is working on the Andean cat in all range countries. Beside national conservation, education projects for the protection of the Andean cat and its habitat, some multi-national projects exist. Due to these efforts, the information about this rare and unknown species is increasing. In 2004 the Andean Cat Conservation Action Plan was developed. This plan compiled and organized the existing information on the Andean cat, included the perceptions of local people from different geographic areas and listed protected areas where Andean Cat presence is confirmed or suspected. Based on the compiled information, main threats were identified and three lines of action were established: 1) Research, 2) Education and Community Participation, and 3) Conservation Management.

This Action Plan was revised as expected, after 5 years of its application, and several of those objectives were achieved or needed to be updated. Andean Cat Alliance members produced the Andean Cat Conservation Strategic Plan, in which the information on the species and its presence in protected areas was revised and geographic priorities were chosen for carrying out research and conservation actions. This Strategic Plan, maintained the three lines of action but updated the general objectives and specific goals, as follows:

 

General objectives

a. To ensure long-term conservation of the Andean cat and its natural environment, including the restoration or rehabilitation of the environments that have suffered degradation.

b. To integrate the conservation of the Andean cat and its natural environment within local policies in the four countries where the species is present, working locally but with a global approach.

c. To strengthen activities of conservation and research in protected areas with Andean cat populations, and to promote the creation or extension of existing protected areas to provide connectivity and/or protection of habitats and Andean cat populations.

d. To promote research on the conservation threats, ecological requirements of the species, its principal prey, and other sympatric carnivores.

e. To standardize the activities of working groups under common and more effective goals.

f. To train protected areas staff and local communities in activities in research, education and conservation tasks; within and outside said areas.

 

Specific goals by action line

1. Research

a) Distribution and Genetics: Complete the distribution map, identify the genetic structure, and establish the Andean cat conservation’s status within its expected range, to guide population conservation actions against habitat loss and degradation.

b) Ecology: Increase knowledge of biology, ecology and conservation threats of the Andean cat.

2. Education

To continue with environmental education activities and community participation, focusing on creating a favourable environment for the development of conservation actions, promoting critical thinking and generating participative opportunities linked to the biodiversity of mountain ecosystems and their main conservation problems, with the goal of increasing knowledge of the Andean cat, preserving its environment in order to help address the identified threats.

3. Conservation

Promote environmental management actions aimed to protect critical populations of Andean cats, their genetic variability, and their role in the ecological processes within their natural habitat.

The status of the Andean cat and the size of its populations are still poorly understood and further research is urgently needed.

Local community engagement in conservation is currently the primary line of action of AGA. Traditional cultural reverence for the Andean cat could be the foundation of a conservation education program to reduce hunting pressure. The maintenance and restoration of mountain vizcachas, the Andean cat’s main prey, is also an important factor for its conservation.