Ecology of the Ocelot and Margay

Updated: 9 September 2021

The Ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) and Margay (Leopardus wiedii) are two small spotted cats that live in neotropical forests. They are more closely related to each other than to other cats, and are descended from a recent common ancestor (Slattery et al. 1994; Masuda et al. 1996; Eizirik et al. 1998). In this report, we compare the ecology of these two cats, noting similarities and differences.

Ocelot in the Peruvian Amazon by Ellie McCoy (Flickr).

Although similar in appearance, the Ocelot and Margay can be told apart by many small characters (Emmons 1990). For example, the Margay’s tail is longer than its hind leg, while the Ocelot’s tail is shorter than its hind leg (Emmons 1990). In addition, the Ocelot is larger and more robust than the Margay (weighing about 3 times as much), and hunts for food mainly on the ground (Goldman 1920; Emmons 1988).

In contrast, the Margay forages for food mainly in trees (Guggisberg 1975, Konecny 1989), and shows many adaptations for arboreal living. For example, the smaller size of the Margay enables it to walk further out on branches than the Ocelot, and its longer tail enables it to more easily maintain balance. It also has superb leaping ability (Petersen 1977) and its claws are proportionately longer than the Ocelot (Leyhausen 1963; Konecny 1989). In addition, the Margay is the only New World cat with joints that rotate sufficiently for it to climb headfirst down trees with hind feet turned facing the trunk, like a squirrel (Leyhausen 1963; Emmons 1990).

Distribution and Habitat

The Margay ranges from the Mexican state of Sonora and the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas to Uruguay and Argentina (Gallo-Reynoso and Navarro-Serment 2002). Only one specimen is known from the historic period of Texas: an adult male collected at Eagle Pass and entered into the U.S. National Museum collection in 1852 (Hollister 1914).

Because the Margay is generally less abundant than the Ocelot throughout its range (Goldman 1920; Leopold 1959), and is secretive in its habits, it is unknown whether or not Margays still roam south Texas. However, the extensive deforestation and brush clearing that has occurred there does not inspire much hope, particularly the destruction of most of the tall, gallery forests of Montezuma Bald Cypress (Taxodium mucronatum) and Sabal Palm (Sabal texana) along the Lower Rio Grande River.

The Eagle Pass specimen differs from Mexican Margays in that its fur is longer, with solid or nearly solid black dorsal spots, instead of enclosed lighter areas (Goldman 1943). For this reason, the Margay specimen from Eagle Pass was classified as a unique subspecies and given the scientific name Leopardus wiedii cooperi (Goldman 1943).

Although many people assume that the Margay is found only in lowland tropical forests, Nelson and Goldman (1931) collected an adult male specimen of this cat at an altitude of over 3000 meters near the summit of Cerro San Felipe, Oaxaca, Mexico in 1894. While it is possible that this and the Eagle Pass specimen were just individual cats that wandered outside their normal haunts, both demonstrate that we have much to learn still about the Margay.

In this regard, prehistoric records are especially interesting because they suggest further penetration of this species into what is now the United States of America. For example, a sub-fossil specimen of the Margay dated 2,400 BC has been collected from a shell midden in a tidal marsh near the mouth of the Sabine River, Orange County, Texas (Eddleman and Akersten 1966). This locality is just a short distance west of the Texas-Louisiana border.

The Ocelot currently ranges from south Texas and Sonora to northern Argentina and Uruguay. However, its range in historic times was considerable greater. In the 1800’s, the Ocelot occurred throughout the state of Texas and also in parts of the states of Arkansas, Louisiana and Arizona (Hall 1981). The disappearance of the Ocelot from most of its United States range was a great loss for, as Audubon noted, it is the most beautiful of all cats found in North America (Audubon & Bachman 1846).

Studies of the remaining U.S.A. Ocelots (i.e. those in south Texas) have found them restricted to dense thorn shrub and forest habitats with over 75% canopy cover (Shindle 1996, Shindle & Tewes 1998; Harveson et al. 2004; Horne et al. 2009). Unfortunately, because of extensive brush clearing and deforestation by humans, less than 1% of south Texas now supports these kinds of habitats (Tewes & Everett 1986). The result is that the last surviving Ocelots in the U.S.A. (approximately 100 in number) are now endangered because their brush and forest habitats are almost gone (Mora 2000; Haines et al. 2005; Janecka et al. 2007, 2008).

Studies done in other parts of this cat’s range confirm that the ocelot prefers the dense cover of forests and thorn shrub habitats (Ludlow & Sunquist 1987; Emmons 1988). On the llanos of Venezuela, for example, radio-tracked Ocelots spend most of their time (81%) in forests (Sunquist et al. 1989). They avoid the more open palm savanna and sandhill habitats, except at night when they occasionally visit these habitats (Sunquist et al. 1989). Ludlow & Sunquist (1987) suggest that the Ocelot prefers dense cover because its prey is more abundant there than in more open habitats. However, it is also possible that the Ocelot shuns open areas to avoid enemies (see below). Konecny (1989) radio-tracked sympatric Ocelot and Margay in Belize, and found that both species preferred forests.

Food Habits

Konecny (1989) studied and compared the food habits of sympatric Ocelot and Margay in a tropical forest of Belize. He found that both cats ate mainly small mammals, but concentrated on different kinds. The Margay ate more arboreal prey than the Ocelot, concentrating on arboreal rodents such as Big-eared Climbing Rats (Ototylomys phyllotis) and Deppe’s Squirrels (Sciurus deppei). In addition, the Margay ate more small birds, fruit and arthropods than the Ocelot.

In contrast, the Ocelot ate more terrestrial prey than the Margay, fewer small birds, and included larger animals in its diet. Prey most frequently eaten by the Ocelot were opossums, (i.e. the Common Opposum Didelphis marsupialis, Four-eyed opossum Philander opossum and Mouse Opposums Marmosa spp.) and Nine-banded Armadillos (Dasypus novemcinctus). Also eaten by the Ocelot were Paca (Agouti paca), Red Brocket Deer (Mazama americana) and Northern Collared Anteaters (Tamandua mexicana).

Other studies confirm that the Ocelot preys mainly on small to medium-sized terrestrial mammals. On the Llanos of Venezuela, Sunquist et al. (1989) found the ocelot feeding mainly on Cane Mice (Zygodontomys brevicauda), Spiny Pocket Mice (Heteromys anomalus), Marsh Rats (Holochilus brasiliensis) and Mouse Opposums (Marmosa robinsoni). However, lizards, especially the genus Iguana, were also frequently eaten. In a tropical deciduous forest in the Mexican state of Jalisco, the Spiny-tailed Iguana (Ctenosaura pectinata) was the most important prey of the Ocelot, followed by the Spiny Pocket Mouse (Liomys pictus) (Meza et al. 2002). In a tropical rainforest in Costa Rica, Chinchilla (1997) found that the Ocelot ate mainly small to medium-sized terrestrial rodents. Prey most frequently eaten were the Spiny Rat (Proechimys semispinosus) and the Spiny Pocket Mouse (Heteromys desmarestianus). One bird species, the Crested Guan (Penelope purpurascens) was also eaten.

In Amazonian Peru, (Emmons 1987, 1988) found similar results. In undisturbed tropical rainforest there, the Ocelot fed mainly on small terrestrial rodents. The most frequently eaten were various species of Spiny Rats (Proechimys spp.), followed by Rice Rats (Orysomys spp.). A number of birds, snakes and lizards were also taken, but the species were not identified. Spiny Rats and Rice Rats were, respectively, the most abundant and second most abundant small terrestrial mammals in the area, so Emmons concluded that the Ocelot, like other rainforest cats, was an opportunistic hunter, feeding on any animal it encountered that it could subdue.

On the Llanos of Venezuela, Ludlow and Sunquist (1987) also reported opportunistic feeding by the Ocelot. During the wet season, when land crabs were very abundant, they were the main prey of the Ocelot. However, during the dry season, however, when land crabs were rarely seen, rodents and iguanas were the main prey. These researchers concluded that, during the wet season, crabs provided the Ocelot with an abundant, easily captured food resource that partly replaced the normal prey in their diet.

In southern Brazilian state of Parana, the ocelot was also found to be opportunistic, consuming the majority of its prey “according to their abundance in the habitat” (Silva-Pereira et al. 2011).

A few studies have found ocelots feeding on arboreal prey and/or larger prey such as primates (Moreno et al. 2006; Abreu et al. 2007; Bianchi and Mendes 2007). One possible explanation for such atypical feeding is reduction of competitors. For example, at sites in Panama where ocelots preyed more frequently upon medium-sized mammals, Jaguars were rare or absent, suggesting that Ocelots were feeding on prey normally eaten by Jaguars (Moreno et al. 2006).

Margay predation on the following 4 species of animals was recorded in British Guiana by Beebe (1925): Brown Capuchin Monkey (Cebus apella), Three-toed sloth (Bradypus tridactylus), Tree Porcupine (Coendou prehensilis) and Blue-crowned Motmot (Momotus momota).

During the Dry Season in São Paulo State, SE Brazil, Wang (2002) found that sympatric Ocelot, Margay and Oncilla (Leopardus tigrinus) all fed mainly on small terrestrial mammals (<1 Kilogram). The Ocelot differed from the Margay and Little Spotted Cat by also feeding on larger mammals (>3 kilograms, i.e. Three-toed Sloth and Long-nosed Armadillo Dasypus novemcinctus) and on more snakes, while the Oncilla ate more birds. The Margay was a generalist and did not concentrate on any particular species.

Harassment by enemies

Like many predators, the Ocelot and Margay are sometimes mobbed by the animals they wish to feed upon. In the Peruvian Amazon, Emmons (1988) observed a group of Spix’s Guans (Penelope jacquacu) mobbing an Ocelot. On 4 other occasions, she also observed various species of monkeys (Red Howler Monkeys Alouatta seniculus, Black Spider Monkeys Ateles paniscus and Brown Capuchin Monkeys Cebus apella) giving loud alarm calls from trees above ocelots that were walking on the ground. The monkeys followed the Ocelots as the latter traveled through the forest. In the Colombian Amazon, Izawa (1978) observed Black-Mantle Tamarins (Saguinus nigricollis) mobbing an Ocelot.

Passamani (1995) observed mobbing of a Margay by a group of 5 Geoffroy’s Marmosets (Callithrix geoffroyi) and one Masked Titi Monkey (Callicebus personatus) in the rainforest of SE Brazil. During the first 5 minutes of the 22 minute mobbing, the Margay was hidden (from ground observation) in a large bromeliad situated 6 meters above ground in a tree. The mobbing occurred on an arboreal route used regularly by the marmosets to visit an important gum source.

Like many other small mammalian carnivores, the Ocelot and Margay are sometimes preyed upon by larger carnivores (Palomares & Caro 1999). In Venezuela, for example, L. Pantin (see Mondolfi & Hoogesteijn 1986) observed a Jaguar (Panthera onca) crossing a savanna opening, carrying in its mouth a large male Ocelot it had just killed. Upon perceiving that it was observed by a human, the frightened Jaguar dropped the Ocelot and fled. The witness then retrieved the Ocelot and saved its skin for positive identification. In Costa Rica, Chinchilla (1997) discovered Ocelot remains in a Jaguar scat, proving that this larger cat sometimes eats the Ocelot.

Activity Patterns

Like most mammals, the Ocelot and Margay are mainly nocturnal (Ludlow & Sunquist 1987; Emmons 1988; Konecny 1989; Crawshaw & Quigley 1989). Ludlow & Sunquist (1987) suggest that the Ocelot is primarily active at night because most of its prey are also active mainly at night. These researchers also note that when the Ocelot hunts diurnal prey (i.e. prey active during the day), such as birds, the Ocelot also becomes active during the day.

In the Atlantic Forest of NE Argentina, the ocelot was found to be active round the clock, but mainly at night (Di Bitetti et al. 2010). In contrast, the margay was completely nocturnal.

Earlier, we discussed the Ocelot’s preference for dense vegetation and avoidance of more open habitats during the day. While this is generally true, it is important to note that the Ocelot sometimes visits more open habitats at night, if darkness is sufficient to conceal its movements there.

For example, in Amazonian Peru, the Ocelot was found to be equally active on moonlit nights as on dark, moonless nights (Emmons et al. 1989). It visited open areas on moonless nights. However, as the moon waxed and light increased in forest clearings, the Ocelot restricted its foraging to denser vegetation (where it was darker). Similar results were found among Ocelots in the Atlantic Forest of Argentina (Di Bitetti et al. 2006).

Emmons et al. (1989) believes that the Ocelot is impeded by light, which hinders this cat’s ability to approach its prey unseen. For this reason, they argue, the Ocelot avoids open areas illuminated by moonlight as well as in sunlight. However, these researchers also acknowledged that the ocelot may avoid illuminated open spaces to evade larger cats such as the Jaguar (Panthera onca) and Puma or Cougar (Puma concolor). Ludlow & Sunquist (1987) also suggested that the Ocelot avoided open habitats during the day because these areas had only a few suitable daytime resting places.


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Information about this Review

The photo of the Ocelot at the top of the page was taken in the rainforest of the Peruvian Amazon by Ellie McCoy (USA). She writes that this Ocelot “just sat there…it seemed very interested in something on the ground, as five of us stood about 30 feet from him for a few minutes before he darted off.”

The review was written by Dr. Paul D. Haemig (PhD in Animal Ecology)

The proper citation is:

Haemig PD 2021 Ecology of the Ocelot and Margay. ECOLOGY.INFO #9

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