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?

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

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

Noun

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

camouflage
Verb

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

Noun

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

Noun

destruction or removal of forests and their undergrowth.

Noun

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

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.