CatSG

Ocelot

Leopardus pardalis

IUCN Red List: Least Concern

Weight: 8-15.1 kg
Body length: 50-101.5 cm
Tail length: 30-50 cm
Longevity: 16-20 years
Litter size: 1-4 cubs

Description

The ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) is genetically very diverse across its range. Four to nine subspecies were proposed but based on recent studies, provisionally only two subspecies are recognised:

  • Leopardus pardalis pardalis from Texas and Arizona south to Costa Rica and
  • Leopardus pardalis mitis in South America as far south as northern Argentina (limit of range with respect to L. p. pardalis is unclear). 

More detailed morphological and molecular analyses are needed to clarify the taxonomy of the ocelot.

The ocelot is a mid-sized cat. Its coat is short and varies in dorsal base colour from pale yellow, yellowish-beige, yellowish-brown to greyish and is covered with dark black spots, stripes and rosettes which get smaller on the limbs and coalesce to form the typical longitudinal bands on the sides. Its throat and belly are white and it has rounded ears with black backsides and central white dots. The ocelot’s tail is typically short with black rings or bars on the top side. In 2004 in the Chaco of western Paraguay, a white ocelot with black markings was pictured. This is the first known record of an animal with such a coat pattern, even though there have been two unconfirmed similar reports from Brazil from the 1980s.

The ocelot has relatively stout legs and large but proportional paws, with the front slightly larger than the hind paws. Males typically weigh more than females, and rainforest ocelots tend to be bigger than those of semi-arid habitats.

Other names

Language/Country

Name

Argentina

tirica, gato onza, chivi-guazu, cuanguaro

Bolivia

gato onza, tigrezillo, gato bueno

Brazil

maracajá-açu, jaguatirica, gato-maracajá, maracajá-verdadeiro

Colombia

maracaya, maracaja

Costa Rica

manigordo

French

ocelot

French Guiana

chat tigre

German

Ozelot

Guarani

agua-tirica

Mayan

zac-xicin

Nicaragua

mandigordo

Panama

mandigoldo, gato tigre, tigre chico

Paraguay

chivi-guazu, gato onza

Peru

gato onza, pupillo, tigrillo

Spanish

tigrillo, ocelote, gato onza

Surinam

hétigrikati

Venezuela

cuanguaro, manigordo

Status and Distribution

The ocelot is classified as Least Concern in the IUCN Red List. The populations in Colombia, Argentina and outside the Amazon region in Brazil are listed as Vulnerable. However, in the latest Brazilian assessment the species was downlisted to Least Concern, even though in some states it could be considered locally as Vulnerable or even Endangered. In Mexico and in the United States, the ocelot is listed as Endangered. In the United States, in Texas, the ocelot declined dramatically. In Texas, the ocelot number is estimated at 50-80 individuals. The biggest population is thought to live in Brazil, where numbers are thought to reach over 40,000 individuals. In areas of the Amazon basin, ocelot populations seem to be stable. In Argentina, the ocelot population is estimated at 1,500 - 8,000 animals. 

Ocelot density estimates

Country/Region

Density /100 km²

Argentina, Atlantic forest

12.9-19.1

Belize, pine forest

3.1

Bolivia, eastern part

24-66

Brazil, south-eastern Pantanal region

62

Peru, Amazon

94.7

Peru, south-eastern part

80

Texas, thorn scrub forest

30

Although the ocelot is a mid-sized felid, it reaches the highest densities of all tropical species of Neotropical cats, with an average of 31.1 individuals per 100 km². Ocelot densities vary from 2.5-160 individuals/100 km². The highest recorded density was detected at the Barro Colorado Island in Panama. The lowest densities were detected at the Pine Forest of Belize, the Caatinga in Brazil and in dry areas of Mexico. 

The distribution range of the ocelot is large. Previously it occurred as far north as Arkansas and Arizona in the United States, but now it is restricted to south Texas. Currently, its distribution spans from southern Texas in the U.S. over the coast of Mexico throughout Central and South America south to north-eastern Argentina and southern Brazil and exceptionally into northwestern Uruguay. It does not occur in Chile. In 2010, an ocelot was again recorded in Arizona, where it occurred historically.

Extant distribution area of the ocelot (IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015).

Habitat

Throughout its vast range, the ocelot occupies a large variety of different habitats. It lives from mangroves to high altitude cloud forest, but tends to be more commonly associated with forests. Thus, ocelot habitats include tropical and subtropical evergreen/deciduous/ semi-deciduous forests, montane/pre-montane forests, coniferous forests, savannas, dry thorn scrub of the semiarid chaparral, Caatinga and Chaco, mangroves/coastal vegetation and seasonally flooded savanna, both pristine and disturbed. Ocelots were also recorded in mosaic habitats where the native vegetation has been partially replaced by pine plantations or agricultural fields. The ocelot is very adaptable even to disturbance if its main habitat features are present: sufficient amount of cover as well as a high prey density. Ocelots generally avoid open areas and seem to venture into them only on cloudy days or moonless nights. It typically occurs at elevations below 1,200 m and has occasionally been recorded up to 3,800 m.


Ecology and Behaviour

The ocelot is the most abundant and best studied small felid in the new world. It tends to be the most abundant felid in almost every kind of habitat where present, whether forested or not, pristine or not, fragmented or not. Its distribution range in South America overlaps with that of most other Neotropical small cat species. As a generalist carnivore and as the largest and most adaptable of the small cat species in tropical America it dominates the other species. In areas where the ocelot occurs, species like the tiger cats (L. tigrinus/L. guttulus), margay (L. wiedii), jaguarundi (Herpailurus yagouaroundi), and Geoffroy‘s cat (L. geoffroyi), avoid the ocelot because of the threat of predation. This negative effect on other smaller sympatric cat species is called the “ocelot effect”.

The ocelot is a solitary animal. Although it can be active during both the day and night, it is typically most active at night or crepuscular and rest during daytime in trees, bushes, or thickets and in ground depressions. It has nocturnal activity peaks which may be associated with the activity of its prey. At night they may travel 3 to 7 km and the mean daily travel distances range from 1.8 to 7.6 km. Males travel up to twice as far as females. The ocelot generally hunts on the ground, but is known to take down arboreal species like monkeys and sloths. Its hunting behaviour varies, taking advantage of seasonal changes in prey abundance. It is a good swimmer and excellent climber, escaping into trees when it is threatened.

Home ranges of males are bigger than the ones of females and encompass around 2-3 female home ranges. Reported home range sizes vary from 0.8 to 90.5 km². The smallest home ranges were found in the Bolivian Chaco, Brazilian Pantanal, Peruvian Amazonia nd in Texas, the highest in the subtropical forests of Argentina and Brazil. In all the study sites, mean home ranges of adult males were significantly larger than those of adult females.

Ocelot home range estimates

Country/Region

Home range size km2

Argentina, Urugua-í, Iguaçu National Park

4.18-11 (females), 3.19-37 (males)

Belize

14.3 (average of 2 females)

Brazil, Iguaçu National Park

11.3

Brazil, Pantanal

0.8-1.5

Peru, Manu National Park

1.6 and 22.5 (2 females), 5.8 and 8.1 (2 males)

Texas

12.3 (average of 5 males), 3.4. (average of females)

Venezuela, Llanos

9.3 and 11.1 (2 males), 3.19-37 (males)

The reproductive season of the ocelots is probably year round with peaks in different months depending on the area. The first reproduction in females takes place at around 18-22 months but is probably related to territory acquisition. Estrus lasts for 4-5 days and the estrus cycle for 21-29 days. The gestation period is 79-85 days. The inter birth interval is thought to be two years and the age of independence is also probably approximately the same. Newborn cubs weigh around 200 g. They open their eyes at 15-18 days, walk at about 3 weeks and leave the den to hunt at 4 to 6 weeks. At around 8 weeks they begin to take solid food. The cubs' eyes are blue and turn to brown in the first months. At the age of about 1.5–2 years the young disperse.

Ocelot in the Pantanal, Brazil
Ocelot looking for food, Pantanal, Brazil.
Ocelot smelling food, Pantanal, Brazil.
Ocelot in the Pantanal, Brazil.
Ocelots are good climbers.
Ocelots are most active at night

Prey

The ocelot is an opportunistic carnivore. They prey on a variety of small (< 1kg) to medium (1–15 kg) and eventually to large sized prey (> 15 kg). The ocelot is the only felid of the small-medium sized Neotropical cat guild that consistently takes prey weighing more than 1 kg. It was thought to rely mostly on small mammals (typically weighing below 0.6 kg), such as small rodents and marsupials like cane mice, marsh, spiny and rice rats, and opossums. However, it has been recently been shown that ocelots could be dependent on larger prey (> 1 kg), like agoutis, pacas, armadillos, monkeys, sloths and eventually deer. These larger sized prey have a significant contribution in terms of biomass consumed, even though small mammals are numerically the prominent prey. In fact, of the three most commonly taken prey in almost every area studied, at least one of them weighs above 0.8 kg. Birds and reptiles (snakes, small and very large lizards, like iguanas and tegus, and tortoises) are also taken. In some areas, ocelot take advantage of seasonally available resources like fish and crabs. Average mean mass of mammalian prey is high (1.5 kg), due to the importance of larger sized prey, but is also highly variable, ranging from only 0.3 kg in the Llanos floodplains of Venezuela to 3.3 kg in the Atlantic rainforest of southeastern Brazil. Predation on rather large sized prey is not related to competitive release from jaguars, as once thought. In fact, the largest mean mass of mammalian prey taken by ocelots was from areas with substantial jaguar populations.

Main Threats

The ocelot has generally been considered to be tolerant to disturbed habitat. Recent studies however depict a more specialized animal operating under rather harsh environmental constraints. The number of ocelots is not known exactly but presumed to be declining across its range. The main threats for the ocelot are habitat destruction and fragmentation (mainly due to logging activitites) leading to a loss of prey base and cover. Although widespread commercial harvests for the fur trade ceased decades ago, illegal fur trade still persists and ocelots are also used in the pet trade. Moreover, especially retaliatory killing due to depredation of poultry takes place. In Texas, as well as southern Brazil, many ocelots are killed by traffic. 

Genetic analysis in the US showed that the two Texan populations were genetically significantly different from each other as well as from the ones in north-eastern Mexico. The extensive agricultural and urban development seems to act as a barrier and to isolate these populations. This makes these populations more vulnerable to threats.

Conservation Efforts and Protection Status

The ocelot population was declining heavily due to the extensive fur trade, which started in the early 1960’s to the 80’s. In this time period more than 566,000 ocelot pelts were officially commercialized. After the implementation of new protection measures in many countries of its distribution and by putting import bans on all spotted cat species the trade slowed down. In 1989, the ocelot was included in the Appendix I of CITES and is today protected in most countries of its distribution range. Hunting is prohibited in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, French Guiana, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, the United States, Uruguay, and Venezuela and regulated in Peru. Only in Ecuador, El Salvador and Guyana, the ocelot is not legally protected. In Texas, measures to mitigate ocelots killed by traffic are now in place. In many regions, the ocelot could recover and in November 2009 an individual was observed as far north as Arizona, where it historically roamed.

The protective measures taken at regional and national scale and the implementation of international trade restriction were based on scientific research on the status of the ocelot and on monitoring information. In Brazil, ocelot populations are well protected within the reserves throughout the country, especially those in Amazonia, where the species is fairly common. In the U.S. today, the ocelot is a conservation priority. The suspected isolated populations in Mexico can probably only be connected by translocations. Another important measure would be to build up corridors to assure gene flow between the different populations.