Jungle Cats › Margay

English Common Name: Margay, Tree Ocelot, Little Ocelot, Long Tailed Spotted Cat.
Spanish Common Names: Caucel, Tigrillo, Gato de Monte.

Scientific Name: Leopardus wiedii.

Survival Status: Although it was once listed as “Vulnerable” to extinction by the IUCN, they have downgraded their status to “Near Threatened”. Of the six species of wild cats in Central America this species is more threatened than the Ocelot, Puma and Jaguarundi, the same as the Jaguar, but not as threatened as the tiny Oncilla which rates a “Vulnerable” status. Because the Margay is completely arboreal (lives in trees) it is much more susceptible to habitat destruction than those cats that can live in variable habitats.

The IUCN Conservation status order is as follows: 1) Least Concern 2) Near Threatened 3) Vulnerable 4) Endangered 5) Critically Endangered 6) Extinct in the Wild 7) Extinct.


The Margay can weigh 6-20 lbs. (2 to 9 kg), have a body length of 18-32 inches (45 to 80 cm) and a tail length of 13 to 20 inches (33 to 51 cm).

Margays are exclusively arboreal (they live in trees). They are so difficult for scientists to study in their natural habitat of the isolated and dense forest canopy that there exists varying opinions on their characteristics and behaviors in the wild. They are very averse to any human intrusion into their natural territory and will leave an area rapidly at the slightest invasion. Some scientists believe they are completely nocturnal due more to the physical characteristics of their eyes, while other scientists say they have observed daytime activity in the wild. Most scientists will agree that they are nocturnal but more diurnal (active during the day) than their relative the Ocelot. The Ocelot, Margay and Oncilla have 36 chromosomes and are far more closely related to each other than to the Jaguar, Puma and Jaguarundi who have 38 chromosomes.

The Margay, through thousands of years of natural selection, has developed unique physical adaptations for surviving in the tree canopy including exceptionally broad feet with mobile toes and a tail which can measure up to 70% of its total body length. This long tail serves to help the cat balance its body weight while walking on thin branches. But even more impressive is its ability to rotate its hind ankles 180º, which allows it to climb down trees head first like a squirrel, or hang from its hind paws while manipulating prey. The only other feline in the world with these abilities is the Clouded Leopard from Southeast Asia. They can grasp branches equally well with their fore and hind paws, and are able to jump considerable distances. Captive individuals have been reported to make leaps in excess of 18 feet vertically and over 28 feet horizontally, second only to the leaping ability of the puma. They have been observed during mid fall, grabbing a branch with one paw and scrambling back up the tree. Most scientists agree that the Margay evolved from the Ocelot and became arboreal to reduce competition for prey on the ground. Equally advantageous to their life in the trees is that in the canopy they have no predators. They sleep on branches or in tree cavities and can easily sense a large predator climbing toward them.

Although they are thought to be solitary creatures that only interact with each other to mate in the wild, we have found that in captivity males and females will form very close social bonds. This is especially true if the male has been neutered. In captivity these couples will groom each other and sleep together and share their food resources.

Because of their beautiful fur that is very similar to the jaguar and Ocelot these animals were hit extraordinarily hard by the fur trade and were actually further threatened when the trade of Ocelot and Jaguar pelts was restricted and they were not covered under these protections. It takes fifteen adult Margays to make one fur coat. They are now internationally protected although some illegal harvesting still continues because investigations have shown that their pelts are the most commonly found in the current illegal trade.

Because of their manageable size (about the size of a domestic cat) these animals also became extremely popular in the U.S as exotic pets. Now they are protected from this trade by the Convention for Illegal Trade in Endangered Species or CITES.

The common name “Margay” comes from the anglicized version of the Aztec word “Marguey” which translates to “Cat of the Trees”. The Mayans called it “Arc of the Arrow” for its agility. The scientific name originated in the early 1800’s from the German explorer and naturalist Prince Maximilian of Wied.

Distribution: The Margay’s ten subspecies can be found from northern Mexico through Panama, northern Colombia, Peru, northern and eastern Paraguay, northern Uruguay and extreme northern Argentina. They can be found from sea level to over 9,750 feet (3,000 meters). They used to inhabit southern Texas but have not been seen there for perhaps 100 years.

Hunting and Feeding:

Because observing Margays in their natural habitat is almost impossible, most of the dietary studies in the wild are based on stomach contents and fecal analysis. These cats eat birds, rodents, squirrels, bats, opossums, sloths, monkeys, lizards, frogs and eggs. They also eat fruit and vegetation including grass to aid in their digestion. It is thought that they hunt exclusively in the tree canopy.

Reproduction and Lifespan:

This species does not have a predetermined reproductive season and, although their gestation period is short (76-85 days) they give birth only once per year. The females may be in heat from 4 to 13 days. The male mounts the female and grasps her by the scruff of the neck with his teeth. Copulation is short, from 15 seconds to one minute. This mating behavior is common to most of the cats. The female builds a nest in the hollow of a tree and usually gives birth to one kitten, sometimes two, and very rarely three. At birth the kitten weighs about one pound (450 grams) compared to a domestic house kitten that may weigh only one quarter of a pound. The kitten is grey and has black spots all over. Their eyes open at 2 weeks old. It will begin to eat solid foods at about 4-5 weeks and it may venture outside of its nest at five weeks. It will be ready to leave the mother at about 4 months and will grow to its full adult size in less than 10 months. There are occasional all black individuals from a pigment mutation similar to the black Jaguars.

In the wild the lifespan of a Margay averages 12-14 years but in captivity they live from 13 to 18 years. According to our research the oldest documented captive Margay lived for 18 years. Our Margay, Feliz, currently living at La Paz Waterfall Gardens- Costa Rica, was born in 1989 and is the oldest documented Margay in history. She is more than twenty years old and still acts like a teenager with her boyfriend Luigi who was born in March of 1993 .

Future Survival in the Wild:

These cats have much smaller territories than their cousins. One male territory is comprised of a 7-9 square mile (12-16 km) area with females occupying part of the male’s territory. This is the good news, however, this cat is completely averse to occupying or crossing areas cleared of forest so their mobility is severely limited and this could represent a threat to their genetic pools. Factors such as their smaller body mass, their successful adaptations for hunting in the trees, and the fact that the rainforest supports so much potential prey in the tree canopy have allowed them to survive in smaller territories. However, these cats must have undisturbed rainforest to survive in the wild and habitat destruction is their number one threat. Maintaining a genetic bank of animals in captivity is a practical safeguard in case we need to repopulate the lost wild species assuming one day we can connect the biological corridors sufficiently to maintain healthy wild populations.

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