Meet Costa Rica’s Tiniest Wild Cat: The Oncilla (VIDEO)


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Costa Rica is known for its beautiful cats — the jaguar, the puma, the ocelot, and the margay — and, to a lesser extent, the jaguarundi. But there is an adorable cat that lives here that receives little attention. And that’s a a shame, because the oncilla is indeed beautiful.

The Oncilla is Definitely Photogenic!

Image license CC 2.0 by Sabine Bresser via Flickr

With that adorable pink nose and those large round eyes, the adult oncilla looks like a permanent kitten. But you’d be mistaken if you think this little feline is fuzzy stuffed-animal docile. It’s a savvy predator found in Costa Rica, a tiny part of Panama, and parts of South America, ranging into northern Argentina, Animalia reports.

There are two species of oncilla

Researchers have recently discovered that oncillas in the northern and southern regions of the Americas don’t interbreed, so they have divided them into Northern Tiger Cat (Leopardus tigrinus) and the Southern Tiger Cat (Leopardus guttulus), according to the International Society for Endangered Cats Canada.

However, for the sake of simplicity, I’m going to refer to the oncilla for the most part, because both species share the same habits.

Oncilla/tigrina range and distribution

Also called the Little Spotted Cat, the Little Tiger Cat, Tigrillo, or Cunaguaro, the oncilla hunts birds, rodents, lizards, eggs, invertebrates, and on occasion, tree frogs. The map below shows where this cute cat lives.

Image by Chermundy license CC SA 3.0 The IUCN Redlist of Threatened Species via Wikimedia Commons

We know very little about the oncilla

Considered rare throughout their range, this cat keeps a few secrets. And unfortunately, they are listed as vulnerable by The IUCN Redlist of Endangered Species. Because oncillas prefer to hunt at night, with such large eyes, they are well-suited to do so.

Image by James Wolfe via YouTube video

Oncillas do, however, make an exception to this rule in Brazil’s Caatinga biome, where they hunt diurnal (daytime) lizards. Barely larger than a housecat, they weigh between 1.5-3 kg (just over three to six pounds) and about 38 to 59 cm (or just over 14 to 23 inches). The color of their thick fur ranges from gray to light brown with beautiful brown rosettes highlighted in black. An oncilla’s tail has seven to 13 black rings, and a black tip and their eyes range from pale to dark brown, EncyclopediaOfLife reports.

It’s often mistaken for the larger margay or ocelot, but unlike these two kitties, the oncilla has a narrower muzzle with larger ears. I’m including photos of a margay and ocelot below, for comparison.

Ocelot (Leopardus pardalis)

Image license CC 2.0 by Ana_Cotta via Wikimedia Commons

Margay (Leopardus wiedii)

Image license CC SA 3.0 by Malene Thyssen via Wikimedia Commons

In Costa Rica, the oncilla prefers to make it’s home in dense montane forests that flank the slopes of volcanoes and other high mountains. Ranging from 1,000 meters (3200 feet) to the treeline (also known as the paramo), you can find this cat in cloud forests and oak highlands. Like most cats, the oncilla prefers solitude and they generally only gather during the mating season. This is when you can observe breeding pairs, though this is very rare.

Largely terrestrial, oncillas are expert climbers. Males have a territorial range of 4.8 to 17 sq. km (or 1.8 to 6.5 miles). Females have a smaller range, at 0.9 to 2.3 sq. km (0.34 to 0.88 sq. miles).

The mysterious oncilla

Males are known to be aggressive with females, and it’s anyone’s guess as to why this is, but it may be largely due to their solitary nature, AnimalDiversityWeb reports.

Captive oncillas mate for life, but we know next to nothing about the mating habits of this elusive cat in the wild. Females reach sexual maturity when they are about two years old. Males are sexually mature at about 18 months, and mating usually occurs in the spring. Typically one kitten is born after a short gestation of about 74 to 76 days. On very rare occasions up to three kittens are born. Oncillas are completely independent by the time they are four months old.

And oncilla cubs are ridiculously cute

They are cute, and you can see that from this photo from ZooBorns, of a cub from Brazil’s Mata Ciliar conservation organization.

Image by Mata Ciliar via ZooBorns

Oncillas are rare throughout their habitat

The IUCN estimates the total population of these cats is somewhere between 8,932 to 10,208 adults. Tragically, their numbers are declining. While it’s illegal to hunt them now, people hunted oncillas for their beautiful fur when ocelots (also hunted for their fur) started to decline. Furthermore, although international trade in their fur has stopped, illegal hunting continues.

Ongoing deforestation in Costa Rica means that their habitat is growing increasingly fragmented. Locals turn forests into pasture for cattle, and increasingly roads are built. And local people hunt them for the illegal pet trade and for pelts. Finally, they kill any oncilla suspected of attacking poultry.

Saving the oncilla

Fortunately, the Central American Oncilla Project conducts research in the hopes of conserving the oncilla in Costa Rica and Panama. Researchers at the organization hope to set up cameras and use non-invasive genetics. And they plan to engage communities to help ensure this cat survives.

Here’s where you come in

If you’d like to help with the project, you can donate here.

Clearly, efforts to help the oncilla to survive in Costa Rica are crucial. And this project is a good start. May it prowl through our dreams and our forests for decades to come.

Watch this graceful hunter in action in the video below.

Featured image license CC SA 3.0 by Groumfy69 via Wikimedia Commons

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