IUCN Red List: Near Threatened
|Body length:||46-69 cm|
|Tail length:||23-52 cm|
|Longevity:||up to 22 years|
|Litter size:||1-2 cubs|
The margay (Leopardus wiedii) is part of the ocelot lineage. It is genetically very diverse, with three distinct groups recognized: Central America and Mexico, northern South America and southern South America. The Amazon River marks the boundary between northern and southern South America.
The margay looks similar to the bigger ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) and the smaller tiger cats (Leopardus tigrinus/Leopardus guttulus) which have similar coat patterns and colours. Paying closer attention, size-wise, it is closer to the tiger cats but in appearance-wise it resembles the ocelot. No wonder in some parts of South America the margay is even called “little ocelot”. The distinguishing features of margays include the very large and bulging eyes, which gives the muzzle a kind of narrow, but prominent appearance. Another distinguishing feature is its proportionally very large paws and very long tail measuring up to 70% of the head and body length and which is usually thick in appearance. The long tail acts as a counterweight to help maintain balance. The margay has a thick and soft fur, which renders one of its common names in northern Brazil, “gato-peludo” or “fury cat”. The base colour is typically yellowish but can also go towards a rather brown colour. The coat is patterned with dark brown or black rosettes. These are usually rounder and in fewer numbers than the other species, and sometimes can almost look like a big spot. Some individuals have elongated rosettes, arranged in longitudinal rows, similar to the ocelot’s. Its underside and belly are white, the cheeks marked with two stripes and the back of the ears are black with central white spots similar to those of the ocelot and tiger cats. The tail of the margay is marked with usually large dark rings. Compared to other cat species the margay shows low sexual dimorphism.
gato montés, gato de monté
gato montés, gato-peludo,
chat tig, chat margay
gato pintado, huamburushu
tigrillio, gato tigre
gato montés, gato de monté
gato pintado, cuanguaro, huamburushu
Status and Distribution
The margay is classified as Near Threatened by the IUCN Red List and in Colombia. In Costa Rica and Mexico it is considered as Threatened, in Colombia as Near Threatened and in Argentina and Brazil as Vulnerable. Margays generally are uncommon to rare throughout its range, and only in very few areas they can get to be relatively common. Generally its densities are between 1-5 individuals per 100 km². Only in a very few areas it seems to reach densities of up to 15-25/100 km². In Amazonia and Central America, of the tropical small-medium sized felid guild, margay usually ranks second in abundance. In Atlantic rainforests, it alternates the second position with the southern-tiger cat, but it is usually the least abundant felid in open habitats.
The margay’s distribution range extends from the lowlands of northern Mexico into Central and South America to Uruguay and northern Argentina. Its occurrence as far north as Texas could have been occasional or of dispersing individuals, rather than an extant population.
Compared to other tropical American cat species, the margay is strongly associated with forest habitat and lives predominately in tropical and subtropical evergreen, deciduous/semi-deciduous, pre-montane humid and very humid forests, and montane cloud forests. In open formations such as savannas and wet-swampy savannas it is usually found in gallery forests. Only occasionally it has been reported outside forested areas. Although the margay seems to be less tolerant to disturbance than the tiger cats or ocelot, it uses altered habitat such as disturbed forests, forest patches, agriculture/forest mosaics, or abandoned plantations, if sufficient tree cover is still available. The margay is rarely found above 1,200 m elevation but has been recorded up to 3,000 m above sea level in the Andes.
Ecology and Behaviour
The margay is solitary, territorial and mainly nocturnal. However, in southern Brazil it has also been recorded active during the day. The margay rests mainly in trees and is considered to be more arboreal and to be better adapted to live in trees than other cat species. It is an excellent and agile climber and can descend a tree head first or hang from a branch by one hind foot. Its hind paws can be rotated by 180 degrees allowing them to grip equally well with the hind limbs and fore limbs. The long tail and the large paws help the margay to keep its balance.
Margays hunt mostly on the ground but can also take prey in trees, but travelling is done mostly on the ground. Given its arboreal capabilities there has been a recurring myth that this cat is either scansorial or arboreal. It indeed possesses several unique arboreal skills, but that does not necessarily make it arboreal per se. In fact, evidence is highly suggestive of terrestrial locomotion and hunting, but with resting time in trees. The little information available about their home range sizes indicates variations between 1-20 km². Typically the margay home range: body size ratio is of 3.7 km² per kilo of body mass making its home range size larger than expected value based on its body size.
Home range size km²
Belize, Cockscomb Basin wildife Sanctuary
11 (1 sub-adult male)
Brazil, Iguaçu National Park
16 (1 male)
Mexico, El Cielo Biosphere Reserve
4.1 (average of 4 males), 1 (1 female)
In Mexico, there was an overlap between the male ranges detected. In areas where ocelots occur, the margay tends 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, margay numbers are negatively impacted by the larger ocelot by interspecific killing due to potential for competition. Margay numbers are not affected by those of the smaller sized and, in fact, more potential competitors, the jaguarundi and the tiger cats.
The gestation period lasts for 76-84 days, the estrus cycle for 32-36 days and the estrus for 4-10 days. Females have only two teats and generally have only one kitten, and only exceptionally two. Average litter size in Brazil was 1.09. The eyes are open at 11–16 days, while solid food is first taken at 52–57 days. Maturity is achieved at 9-12 months, whereas reproduction typically starts at two years of age, which is rather late for a felid of this size when compared to species from other lineages. Margays do not reproduce easily in captivity, and often most zoo animals are wild born.
Most prey species of the margay are nocturnal. The margay feeds on both terrestrial and scansorial small mammals (< 0.6 kg), birds and reptiles. Larger medium sized mammals like squirrels, rabbits, agoutis, or small monkeys are also taken, but to a lesser extent. Typically small rodents form the bulk of the diet, but lizards and especially birds can comprise important items at some sites. At the study site in Belize, scansorial prey was a considerable part of the diet. However, at most sites in Brazil, typical prey were mostly terrestrial. Average mean prey mass taken by the margay is about 250 g, which is intermediate between those of tiger cats and jaguarundi. Although there might be some overlap in prey preference, these cat species have different principal prey.
The margay was one of the most heavily exploited cat species in South America and from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s a minimum of over 125,000 margay skins were traded. In some areas illegal hunting still takes place. Habitat fragmentation and destruction mostly in form of deforestation and conversion of native forests into agricultural areas, pastures and infrastructure are considered to be the major threats today. Margay populations especially outside the Amazon basin are severely fragmented and are being reduced by habitat conversion to plantations and pasture. Road kills, illegal trade for the pet market and retaliatory killing due to poultry depredation are also threatening the species. The margay is susceptible to disease outbreaks and has a low reproductive rate which makes it even more vulnerable.
Conservation Efforts and Protection Status
After the extensive exploitation of the margay it was included in the Appendix 1 of CITES in 1989. Now it is fully protected over most of its range. Hunting and trade are prohibited in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, French Guiana, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay and Venezuela. In Ecuador, Guyana and El Salvador it is not legally protected.
Very little is known of the status and abundance of the margay. The margay populations in protected areas outside the Amazon basin, are assumed to be very low and not to be viable in the long term (maybe due to the ocelot effect). The species could be classified as Vulnerable in the future, and periodical reviews are of high importance. Furthermore, more studies on the ecology, demographics, natural history, status and threats of the margay are needed to support adequate conservation efforts.