What Is the Oncilla?

Christian Petersen

The oncilla is a type of small wild cat found in forested and jungle areas of South America and a small part of southern Central America, particularly highland areas. Its scientific name is Leopardus tigrinus, but it is known by a number of other common names, including the tiger cat, the little spotted cat, and the cunaguaro among others. It is one of the smallest of the wild cats, and a full grown adult is similar in size to an average house cat, although it typically weighs less than 6.6 pounds (3 kg). They have beautiful coats that resemble the leopard's, with a lighter base color mottled with dark spots. These cats are considered at risk as a species and are under pressure due to reduction of habitat and are hunted heavily for their fur.

The Leopardus tigrinus is found in forest and jungle areas in South America.
The Leopardus tigrinus is found in forest and jungle areas in South America.

Central and South America have several species of small wild cat, and the oncilla is considered to be one of the most beautiful. It has a very thick, rich, short-haired coat with a base color of tan or ruddy yellow that is heavily mottled with dark spots of brown or black. Both the base color and the spots fade to a much paler hue on the underside of the animal while the spots become irregular stripes or bands as they near the head and the face. It's large, widely set round eyes are brown or golden, and its tail is very long and decorated with irregular spotty bands. The paws are fairly broad for the cat's small size, and the pattern of spots continues right to the toes, gradually decreasing in size.

Oncillas may dine on tree frogs.
Oncillas may dine on tree frogs.

These cats are found in a number of habitat types but prefer highland forests rather than the lowland jungles. They sometimes inhabit grassy areas and even semi-arid scrubland. They share habitat with other cats, such as leopards and other small cats. Their small size allows them to coexist with other species as they rarely compete for the same prey. The oncilla also seems to adapt to intrusion by human activity better than some other species, as long as the intrusion is not destructive to their habitat, such as cloud forest coffee and cocoa plantations, which actually create an opportunity to study these animals.

In build, the oncilla is proportioned more like the heavily built leopard than the sleek cheetah, although on a much smaller scale. They are excellent climbers and spend part of their time in the trees but tend to hunt on the forest floor. They are part of a group of animals called obligate carnivores, which means they must consume meat as a primary part of their diet. They are opportunistic hunters, and depending on their particular region and habitat, may hunt rodents, small birds, lizards, or even tree frogs. They tend to hunt at night but may be active during the day depending on their primary prey and its habits.

The oncilla exhibites cross breeding with similar species in some areas. Not much is known about this process and how it affects the involved species or whether the hybrids are fertile and breed back into other populations of either parent species. Some of the species known to cross with the oncilla include Geoffroy's cat and the pampas cat. At least four subspecies of these cats are known, their distribution mainly corresponding to broad geographical regions in which they are found.

In many countries within its range, the oncilla is protected, but hunting is still allowed in some areas. Conservation groups continue to work to help preserve the animal and its habitat in many regions. Breeding program efforts to curtail worldwide trade in oncilla pelts are just one of these efforts.

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