• The oncilla (Leopardus guttulus), also called little spotted cat or little tiger cat, is one of the smallest wildcat species of Central and South America. Oncillas’ soft fur is grayish with dark rosettes, and their tails are ringed, providing camouflage in the speckled light of a tropical forest. Often mistaken for ocelots or margays, the smaller oncillas have larger ears, a more narrow face, and a slimmer body than these relatives.

    Oncillas are excellent climbers and mostly hunt for prey at night. They eat small mammals, lizards, birds, eggs, and invertebrates. With its stealthy cat behavior, a healthy oncilla can pounce its prey and mostly avoid becoming dinner for other wild predators

    Oncillas have been observed in a variety of forest habitats, from the coast to the cloud forests at approximately 3,200 meters (about 10,000 feet) above sea level. They live in areas from central Brazil and Peru north into Costa Rica.

    Despite their flexibility in where they live and what they eat, and also their lack of natural predators, oncilla populations have been hit hard by their main threat, human activity. Oncillas are listed as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) list. Loss of habitat through deforestation, road building, and expansion of agriculture has fragmented the environments where they live. Poaching and hunting are also a problem. According to studies in the 1970s and 1980s, oncillas were one of the most hunted cats in South America. Despite limits on hunting oncillas today, poaching−for the fur trade and to protect livestock−is causing a decline in the cat’s population.

    Cat conservation organizations work to protect these species, which, like all of the big cats, are important to their ecosystem balance and health.

    1. What characteristics of the oncilla help protect it from predators?

      The oncilla’s coat helps to camouflage it, the color and pattern making it blend in with the sun-speckled environment. Oncillas are also well-adapted climbers and evade predators by hiding in the forest canopy. Their nocturnal nature, which means they hunt and move about mainly at night, further protects them from being easily seen by predators.

    2. How does protecting wildcats such as the oncilla help us conserve nature overall?

      Wildcats need large swaths of mostly undisturbed, wild habitat. Protecting them requires protecting broad expanses of natural habitat, which benefits all of the species that inhabit the same area−plants and animals. 

    3. What happens when scientists find differences within a species, as they did with oncilla populations?

      Taxonomists and other scientists looking at the classification of animals consider changes to that classification when they find new information. In the case of the oncilla, scientists named four oncilla subspecies, because they found that isolated oncilla populations in different regions north and south of the Amazon River had evolved slight differences over millions of years. Recently, oncilla researchers have split oncillas into two separate species, because some of the subspecies do not appear to interbreed, and they have clear genetic differences. Additional splits between two subspecies in Costa Rica are being investigated.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    agriculture Noun

    the art and science of cultivating the land for growing crops (farming) or raising livestock (ranching).

    Encyclopedic Entry: agriculture
    camouflage Verb

    to hide or disguise by blending in to surroundings. Also called cryptic coloration.

    conservation Noun

    management of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction, or neglect.

    Encyclopedic Entry: conservation
    deforestation Noun

    destruction or removal of forests and their undergrowth.

    ecosystem Noun

    community and interactions of living and nonliving things in an area.

    Encyclopedic Entry: ecosystem
    genetic Adjective

    having to do with genes, inherited characteristics or heredity.

    interbreed Verb

    to reproduce with members of a closed population (where genetic material from outside groups is excluded.) Or, to breed with members of another breed or group.

    margay Noun

    small, spotted cat (Felis tigrina) native to Central and South America.

    ocelot Noun

    spotted American wildcat.

    poach Verb

    to hunt, trap, or fish illegally.

    predator Noun

    animal that hunts other animals for food.

    prey Noun

    animal that is hunted and eaten by other animals.

    rosette Noun

    rose-shaped patch of color on the skin or fur of some animals, such as cheetahs and jaguars.

    taxonomist Noun

    scientist who studies the description, identification, naming, and classification of organisms.

    tropical Adjective

    existing in the tropics, the latitudes between the Tropic of Cancer in the north and the Tropic of Capricorn in the south.