Northern tiger cat

Leopardus tigrinus

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, most likely 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!

Currently two subspecies of the Northern tiger cat are recognised:

  • Leopardus tigrinus tigrinus in northern South America, possibly as south as Bolivia and northern Argentina and
  • Leopardus tigrinus oncilla in Costa Rica and possibly Panama. 

However, further research is needed to establish whether northwestern South American tiger cats are another species L. pardinoides and if the tiger cats from Central America represent a distinct species too. 

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 and weigh only about 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 has a pale yellow to slightly ochraceous base color, which is marked by small dots that tend to form an open rosette. The southern tiger cat (L. guttulus), 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, often seeming to have a slender body, legs and tail. The southern tiger cat, on the other hand, tends to look slightly bulkier, 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 conspicuously, 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. However, the tiger cats’ fur is not as thick, 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 not with a very large appearance, and its tail is shorter than the margay’s tail. In all tiger cats the nape hair slants backwards, differently from both ocelot and margay, but similar to Geoffroy’s cat.

Other names




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


tigrillo perludo, tigre gallinero

Costa Rica



tigrillo chico


tiger cat, little spotted cat


chat tigre, oncille

French Guiana

chat tigre tacheté, chat tig


Onzille, Kleinfleckenkatze, Ozelotkatze, Zwergtigerkatze






tigrillo, tirica, gato tigre


ocelot-cat, tigrikati



Status and Distribution

The northern tiger cat was classified as Vulnerable in the IUCN Red List. In Brazil, it is classified as Endangered and in Colombia as Vulnerable. In Colombia, only the northern species is found. Brazil is the main range country for both the northern and southern species.

The northern tiger cat is considered as widespread but to be rare everywhere. Population densities in the Cerrado and Caatinga in Brasil were estimated at 1-5/100 km². The northern tiger cat is negatively affected by the ocelot and may occurs mainly outside of protected areas. Where the ocelot is not present it reaches densities of 5-20 individuals /100 km². In the Amazonas the species may only occur marginally. In some areas declines of 10-40% were estimated. Its population was estimated at 8,932 to 10,208 adult individuals.

The distribution range of the northern tiger cat expands from Costa Rica and Panama in Central America into South America up to Central Brazil. Its southern limits are not yet well known, as well as the extent of a possible overlap with the populations of the southern tiger cat. Its distribution in the Amazon basin is possibly patchy and not continuous. The northern tiger cat is absent from the Darien Peninsula connecting Central and South America, as well as from the Llanos of Colombia and Venezuela, and the Paraguayan Chaco. From Ecuador and Peru, only few museum specimens exist and only in 2000 the species was formally confirmed in Bolivia through live-trapping. 

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


The northern tiger cat lives in a wide range of habitats. These include tropical and subtropical rainforest, deciduous/semi-deciduous, montane and premontane forests, semiarid thorny scrub, savannah and wet/swampy savannah. In Central and northwestern South America, the northern tiger cat is mainly associated with montane cloud forests, where it is usually found at higher elevations than the ocelot and margay. The northern tiger cat occurs up to an elevation of 3,000 m, occasionally above. In Colombia, it seems to be restricted to elevations above 1,500 m but has been recorded up to 4,800 m. Most records in Costa Rica come from the forests along the flanks of volcanos at elevations from 1,000 m up to the tree line where it inhabits cloud and elfin forests. On the other hand, in Brazil it mainly occurs in the lowlands below 500 m and is commonly associated with savannah, semiarid scrub, as well as forests. Even though it is found in Amazonian rainforests, to what degree the northern tiger cat uses it is not clear and needs further investigation. It can be found in disturbed habitats, even close to human settlements, as long as there is natural cover and prey base.

Ecology and Behaviour

The tiger cat is a solitary felid. It is active predominantly at night, but can also show varying degrees 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 northern and southern 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 cats numbers are negatively impacted by the larger ocelot by interspecific killing due to potential for competition. On the other hand, tiger cats numbers are not affected by those of the margay and jaguarundi, which are, in fact, more potential competitors than the much larger ocelot.

Northern tiger cat population densities vary but are supposed to be very low throughout most of its range, especially in regard to what would be expected of such a small cat species. Given its size, expected density would be 91 individuals per 100 km². However, generally the northern tiger cat occurs at densities of 1-5/100 km², and only in very few and highly localized areas, where ocelots are absent or rare, they could reach densities of up to 15-25/100 km². In the Amazon, usually the safeguard region for the tropical American felids, the northern tiger cat occurs at an exceedingly low density of perhaps only 0.01 individuals per 100 km². There is evidence that it is also naturally rare and elusive in Central America, as it is in some areas of Brazil. Maybe due to the “ocelot effect” it is mostly found outside protected areas, and does not seem to attain effective population size for long-term persistence in any Conservation Unit.

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 showan 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  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. Home ranges for the northern tiger cat ranges from 1 to 17.1 km². Female ranges are smaller than the one 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 of 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 northern tiger cat's diet is still very poorly studied, but is known to be based on small mammals (< 100 g), birds and reptiles (especially lizards). Stomach contents from specimens from Costa Rica and Venezuela included mostly small rodents. Conversely, in the semi-arid Caatinga scrub of northeastern Brazil, the diet comprised 28 items. In this area, mean prey mass was around 55 g. The main part consited of lizards, but also including significant amounts of birds and some small rodents. Thus, it is suggestive that this small felid is a generalist predator, taking advantage of the most readily available resources in the area. 

Main Threats

The main threats to the northern tiger cat are habitat loss and fragmentation due to deforestation and persecution by humans. The cloud forests in Colombia, for example, are being replaced by coffee or eucalyptus plantations, and the Brazilian Cerrado is being converted for grains. Loss of natural cover in the Brazilian Cerrado and Caatinga reaches 55% and 30–50%, respectively. This would thus imply an equivalent reduction in the species’ extent of occurrence. As the tiger cat shows low densities in protected areas and populations are fragmented, it is even more vulnerable to habitat conversion. Killing due to poultry depredation, road kills, as well as competition and diseases spread by domestic dogs are further threatening the northern tiger cat. Hybridization with the pampas cat might also pose a threat, as well as changes in native species dynamics.

Although the international trade in furs has been heavily reduced, illegal hunting and capturing still takes place, mostly for the local market. 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 northern tiger cat’s ecology and status making it difficult to assess threats and their impact.

Conservation Efforts and Protection Status

The tiger cat is included in the Appendix I of CITES since 1989 and is protected over part of its range. Hunting is prohibited in Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, French Guiana, Suriname and Venezuela, but it is not legally protected in Ecuador, Guyana, Nicaragua, Panama and Peru.

As the northern tiger cat, when present, occurs in extremely low numbers in the Amazon Basin reserves or other protected areas, such areas do not represent a safeguard for this species as they do for other felids. Also, this felid is probably most frequent outside protected areas, where its habitat is undergoing high rates of destruction. Thus, conservation efforts should be focused on the areas outside protected areas. The area with the highest potential for maintaining the largest population of the northern tiger cat is the conservation complex around Nascentes do Rio Parnaíba National Park (Brazil) in the northern savannas. However, there is still no hard evidence for that, only a prediction based on area size and tiger cat’s density. Still, numbers are expected to vary only from 750 to 2,250 individuals.

Further research on both species of the tiger cat’s ecology, natural history and threats is urgently needed. To reassess its taxonomy is a research priority as the northern tiger cat might possibly be divided into two separate species.