Species Fact: Ocelots

This small spotted Latin American cat was trendy in the 1950s and 1960s, but not in a good way.

In those days fur coats took a heavy toll on wild populations. The kittens that filtered into the pet trade were by-products of that practice. Mortality rates were high given the stress of transporting kittens that were often captured at a very young age and sometimes were unthrifty when shipped.

Feline Conservation Foundation

Public outcry over these practices and the conservation movement’s arrival led to an international treaty to protect ocelots and many other endangered plants and animals.

At that point, of course, ocelots had disappeared from much of their historic range — from Arkansas and Arizona down through Central America and into most of South America.

Which is why wildlife managers in Arizona got very excited in 2011 when this happened:

So far, no sightings have been reported in Arkansas, although South Texas is known to have a small breeding population of these beautiful cats.

Scientific name(s):

Leopardus pardalis.




These are from the Cat Specialist Group website unless otherwise noted.

Avi, CC BY-SA 2.0
  • Weight: 18 to 33 pounds. Per Oliveira et al., the most massive ocelots live in rainforest — it’s not clear why, possibly because larger prey is available there. Cats in more open environments are smaller.
  • Body length: 20 to 40 inches.
  • Tail length: 12 to 20 inches.
  • Coat: Per Sunquist and Sunquist, “[I]t seems that no single description can be made to fit the variety of markings or color patterns found on the ocelot’s dappled coat. The background color can be anything from cream to tawny yellow, reddish gray, or gray. Ocelot fur is short and close, marked with solid or open-centered dark spots that sometimes run in lines across the body. Where the spots are open, their centers are often darker than the background coat color. The spots on the limbs and feet are smaller and solid. On the shoulders and back the spots may merge like links in a chain to form four or five dark stripes that run from the neck to the base of the tail. The neck and belly are white, and there are one or two transverse bars on the insides of the legs. The tail is ringed with black or has black bars on the upper surface. The hair at the nape of the neck forms a whorl.”
  • Vocals: Ocelots make a number of friendly short-range calls, saving their yowls for the breeding season. These medium-sized cats do not roar, but they probably purr, though I haven’t been able to document that.
  • Average litter size: 1 to 4.
  • Average life span: 16 to 20 years.

Features unique to this cat:

  • The only mid-sized neotropical cat that consistently takes prey weighing more than 2 pounds. (Cat Specialist Group) Unlike their wild feline peers, the ocelot menu is open for everything from small rodents to white-tailed deer and peccaries! In fact, the presence of enough large prey may be the limiting factor on this cat’s abundance. (Oliveira et al.)
  • In some places, ocelots have the highest density of any neotropical cat: 31 ocelots per 40 square miles. This abundance makes ocelots the best studied of all small cats in the New World.(Cat Specialist Group; Oliveira et al.)
  • The “ocelot effect”: Where there are many ocelots, there are fewer small felines — margays, jaguarundis (a puma relative), etc. Experts suspect it is for the same reason that lions and tigers outnumber, respectively, cheetahs and leopards. Ocelots are about the size of bobcats and may prey on their smaller neighbors. (Macdonald et al.; Murray and Gardner; Oliveira et al.)

    There’s a lot on the menu in Amazonia, where ocelots thrive. Interestingly, there’s no “puma” or “jaguar” effect — ocelots coexist well with these larger cats.

Where found in the wild:

BhagyaMani via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 4.0

Throughout Central America and in every South American country but Chile, as well as on Trinidad and Venezuela’s Isla de Margarita. Ocelots are mostly found on eastern coast of Mexico now; they used to be more common on western coast. (Macdonald et al.; Murray and Gardner)

They used to range as far north as Arkansas but now only a few have been sighted in southern Texas and Arizona, as we’ve seen. Northeastern Argentina is their southernmost territory, and they’re probably most abundant in Brazil.

Ocelots generally stay below 4,000 feet but can adapt to many different settings, from Latin American mangrove swamps to dense thornscrub of the arid US Southwest.

Closest cat-family relatives:

Within the ocelot lineage, phylogenetic studies agree that margays are the closest to ocelots. (Johnson et al.; Nyakatura and Bininda-Emonds) This fits in with the very similar appearance of these cats.

Not that you can tell from an image, but that is a margay on the left and an ocelot on the right. In the field, biologists use body weight and tail length to tell them apart. (Margay, Clément Bardot via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0; ocelot, Carine06, CC BY-SA 2.0

Taxonomists are still working out exactly where the ocelot lineage fits into the cat family tree.

How ocelots hunt and live:

Ocelots like dense cover but they’re generalists and will take any vertebrate they can handle. (Murray and Gardner)

Sometimes it’s not exactly easy . . .

These cats can be active any time, but they usually rest during the day and come out around dusk, hunting and moving around, on average, between 1 and 5 miles per night and into the dim light before dawn.

Ocelots primarily hunt on the ground, but they’re excellent climbers and take tree-dwellers like monkeys and sloths, too. Their main tactic, per Murray and Gardner, is to just walk along until they find something.

. . . and sometimes it’s possible to just take something off the shelf.

Per Kitchener et al. (2010), ocelots track down prey by smell.

You might think all cats do that — and of course to some extent they do — but carnivore anatomy and physiology studies have shown that, during evolution, cats traded some of their ability to smell for better eyesight, while exactly the opposite occurred in wolves and dogs.

This is why Fluffy likes to stare out the window while Fido goes to the door and sniffs the wind.

And in zoos, keepers provide scent trails to enrich the lives of captive ocelots.

How they reproduce:

Kittens are born in a secluded place — hollow trees, rocks, caves, thorn thickets, and so forth. They weigh about half a pound at birth and already have those beautiful spots, though the coats are initially, with black fur on the legs. The full adult colors come in gradually, and the kittens’ eyes change from blue to brown at around 3 months.

They open their eyes at around 15 to 18 days, sit up and begin walking at 3 weeks, and then start accompanying Mom on hunts when about 3 months old.

Now Mom has to work even harder to get enough food for herself and her youngsters, but as Junior matures it will become proficient at this.

Interactions with people:

In what’s now Peru, the Moche depicted ocelots and other local cats in ceramic artworks. (Alessio Marrucci, via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Every wild cat is dangerous, but ocelots generally try to avoid us.

This shyness did not stop their worship by the Moche people.

Nor does it stop people today from wanting a pet ocelot, though there are things they need to consider before getting one.

For background only, here is some information about US laws concerning exotic cats. As well, ownership of big cats and others, including the ocelot, is regulated differently in each country.

Fossil relatives:

Ocelots don’t have much of a confirmed fossil record, though relicts from the late Pleistocene have been found in Florida and modeling shows that this lineage may go back as much as eight million years.

The problem is that there are many fossilized small cats in the Americas and they all sort of blend in to one another.

At the time of writing, all that paleontologists can report is that:

A number of North American taxa have been proposed at one time or another as members of this [8-million-year-old] ghost lineage, including “‘F.’ lacustris,” “‘F.’ rexroadensis, “‘F.’ longignathus,” and “‘F.’ proterolyncis . . . The first of these is likely to belong to the “Puma” lineage, but the relationships of the others are unclear. They may belong to the “Lynx” or ocelot lineages, or be on the backbone of the phylogeny between them. The earliest members of several of these taxa are Late Miocene . . . in age.

— Werdelin et al.


Yes, as Least Concern overall, though in some places, including Mexico and the United States, ocelots are rare enough to be considered Vulnerable or Endangered .

Featured image: Jitze Couperus, CC BY 2.0.


Cat Specialist Group. n. d. Ocelot. http://www.catsg.org/index.php?id=88 Last accessed May 17, 2019.

Ewer, R. F. 1973. The carnivores. The World Naturalist, ed. Carrington, R. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Johnson, W. E.; Eizirik, E.; Pecon-Slattery, J.; Murphy, W. J.; and others. 2006. The Late Miocene Radiation of Modern Felidae: A Genetic Assessment. Science, 311:73-77.

Kitchener, A. C.; Van Valkenburgh, B.; and Yamaguchi, N. 2010. Felid form and function, in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, ed. Macdonald, D. W., and Loveridge, A. J., 83-106. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kitchener, A. C.; Breitenmoser-Würsten, C.; Eizirik, E.; Gentry, A.; and others. 2017. A revised taxonomy of the Felidae: The final report of the Cat Classification Task Force of the IUCN Cat Specialist Group. https://repository.si.edu/bitstream/handle/10088/32616/A_revised_Felidae_Taxonomy_CatNews.pdf

Macdonald, D. W.; Loveridge, A. J.; and Nowell, K. 2010b. Dramatis personae: An introduction to the wild felids, in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, eds. Macdonald, D. W., and Loveridge, A. J., 3-58. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Murray, J. L., and Gardner, G. L. 1997. Leopardus pardalis. Mammalian Species, (548): 1-10.

Nyakatura, K., and Bininda-Emonds, O. R. P. 2012. Updating the evolutionary history of Carnivora (Mammalia): a new species-level supertree complete with divergence time estimates. BMC Biology. 10:12.

O’Brien, S. J., and Johnson, W. E. 2007. The evolution of cats. Scientific American. 297 (1):68-75.

de Oliveira, T. G., Tortato, M. A., Silveira, L., Kasper, C. B., Mazim, F. D., Lucherini, M., … & Sunquist, M. (2010). Ocelot ecology and its effect on the small-felid guild in the lowland neotropics. Biology and conservation of wild felids, 559-580.

Turner, A., and M. Antón. 1997. The Big Cats and Their Fossil Relatives: An Illustrated Guide to Their Evolution and Natural History. New York: Columbia University Press.

Werdelin, L. 1983. Small pleistocene felines of North America. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 5(3): 194-210.

Werdelin, L.; Yamaguchi, N.; Johnson, W. E.; and O’Brien, S. J.. 2010. Phylogeny and evolution of cats (Felidae), in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, eds. Macdonald, D. W., and Loveridge, A. J., 59-82. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wikipedia. 2019. Ocelot. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ocelot Last accessed May 17, 2019.

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