HomeNatureAnimalsElusive and Endangered Oncilla Cat: The Tiny Wildcat Fighting for Survival
Elusive and Endangered Oncilla Cat: The Tiny Wildcat Fighting for Survival
Oncilla cat (Leopardus tigrinus) is similar to margays, but they are smaller and more delicately built, with larger ears and a narrower muzzle. In recent years, camera traps have revealed that oncillas thrive also in savannas, thorn scrub, and lowland forests; previously, they were considered forest cats confined to lowlands and cloud forests.
A 6-pound cat (2.7 kilograms) hunts very small prey as might be expected. Most of the prey that oncillas eat weighs less than 3.5 ounces (100 g), which is roughly the size of a medium-sized tomato. They also eat small mice, rats, lizards, centipedes, grasshoppers, beetles, and tiny opossums. In heavily forested parts of its range, some melanistic oncillas have been reported. It takes 38 to 56 days for kittens to take solid food, but they are weaned after three months.
A night hunter in a forest habitat will often find oncillas, but a day hunter in a savanna or scrub forest will find them. A female oncilla typically gives birth to one kitten after a lengthy gestation period, similar to a margay and ocelot. Because populations take a long time to recover from losses, they are more vulnerable to hunting and trapping.
There may be two species of oncillas, based on a recent genetic analysis. Although they are mostly nocturnal, they are more likely to be active during the day in places like Caatinga, where they feed on diurnal lizards. In close proximity to one another, oncillas make short, gurgling calls, while young ones purr.
Opposite, top. Oncilla from northern and southern Brazil is a separate species, according to Brazilian scientists studying South American Leopardus cats. It has been at least 100,000 years since northern and southern populations separated genetically. These new species have yet to be given common names.
Opposite, bottom. The northern and southern oncilla is similar in size and appearance, but the northern one has slightly lighter fur and smaller rosettes. We may see a multitude of Oncilla species as genetic information from other parts of the cat’s distribution becomes available.
Oncillas are primarily terrestrial animals, but they are also adept climbers. Despite its obligate carnivorous nature, the oncilla requires meat to survive. Cats are “sugar blind”: They lack the gene that allows them to detect sweet tastes. All cats, from tigers to tabbies, lack this receptor. The taste of sugar is invisible to cats, unlike dogs and most other mammals. Sexual maturity of an oncilla occurs between the ages of two and half a year. There are records of oncillas living up to 17 years old in the wild, but their life span is usually about 11 years.
In cats, one of two genes controlling the taste-bud receptor is nonfunctional, which allows sweet compounds to be detected. “Sugar blindness” likely contributed to cats’ carnivorous diet’s evolution. The expansion of human settlements and conversion of land for settlement contribute to oncilla mortality as well. Cloud forest habitats are most commonly converted to coffee plantations, causing the habitats to be reduced in size. Poaching and deforestation are the two main threats to oncillas. In addition to being killed for their pelts, oncillas are also used as clothing materials and their pelts are highly prized.
The IUCN Red List estimates that oncillas have a total population size of 8,932 to 10,208 adults throughout their habitat. A declining number of this species makes it vulnerable (VU) on the Threatened Species List.
Status: IUCN Red List—Vulnerable Weight: 4–8 pounds (1.8–3.5 kg) Head-body length: 15–23 inches (38–59 cm) Tail length: 8–17 inches (20–42 cm) Litter size: 1–4 kittens, usually 1