South American small cats are adorable, but some of them force zoologists to reconsider their views on species and evolution.
This is one of those cats. Don’t worry — you won’t need a PhD to follow the general outlines of its story.
Even better, as far as we’re concerned, this little wild kitty sometimes looks just like an oversized housecat!
Pampas cats are usually an overall shade of brown to gray, but some are melanistic, possibly including this kitty out for a walk in Uruguay.
But sometimes they don’t resemble Fluffy at all.
Pampas cats can be a little confusing. The craziness begins with their formal name.
Yes, colocola, not colocolo.
Many people want to use an “o” instead of an “a,” but I’m following Kitchener et al., a normally terse source, who gave it an extensive discussion.
In brief, underlying the whole colocolo/colocola thing is the fact that Latin adjectives must match the gender of the nouns they modify.
Leopardus is masculine, so everyone assumes that colocolo is the right adjective for it.
But that’s not even a Latin word. There’s no need for it to match Leopardus.
The Cat Specialist Group suggests that colocola may be a Spanish mispronunciation of the native word kodkod (which is why they prefer to call this cat a guigna).
An added complication is that some of the old, incorrect names still pop up in Internet searches. These include:
- Colocolo (
- Pantanal cat (
- Pampas cat (
That all had to be changed to L. colocola when these species differences weren’t supported by DNA studies. But the genetic picture is still somewhat complicated.
Sure, it’s esoteric, but such details help scientists and conservationists understand Pampas cats better.
So the process continues, and eventually the madness will settle down when experts finally reach a consensus.
These are from the Cat Specialist Group website. Most information is from captives, as not a lot is known yet about Pampas cats in the wild:
- Weight: 7 to 9 pounds.
- Body length: 17 to 31 inches.
- Tail length: 9 to 13 inches
- Coat: Let’s hold off on this feline rainbow until we get to Pampas cat locations in the wild.
- Average litter size: 1 to 3 kittens
- Average life span: 9 to 18 years
Features unique to this cat:
Pampas cats can be seen occasionally in forests, but they are the only cat that specializes predominantly in open habitats. (de Oliveira et al.)
Where found in the wild:
These small cats were named for Argentina’s famous grassy plains, but they are also found farther south, down through Patagonia and almost to the southern tip of South America.
Pampas cats also inhabit the open places, dry forests, and scrublands of Bolivia, Paraguay, and Brazil.
In addition, they’re in the Andes from Chile to Ecuador and possibly a little ways into southwestern Colombia.
Their appearance can be very different from region to region.
There are no hard and fast rules except that this is the Pampas cat you’ll find in the High Andes . . .
. . . and this it in the lowlands of Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay:
Yeah, it’s easy to see why the first scientists to classify these cats thought they were different species.
But wait — there’s more!
Pampas cats also come with rosettes, particularly in the highland steppes near the Equator:
Those beautiful rosettes gradually fade away in Pampas cats farther down the Andes slopes, getting into dry forests and shrublands.
Here, the background color lightens and the animal’s fur is a nearly solid grayish brown, with only a few individuals showing faint spots.
Despite the variety of looks, molecular testing has shown that this is probably all one species.
However, this widespread little South American cat has seven somewhat differently structured genetic groups.
These might be subspecies or they could be separate species that are so new, they haven’t been recognized yet.
That’s important from a conservation standpoint. These are all small, isolated populations — if they are actually different species, then some of them (shown at the left) are at an even higher risk of extinction than the Pampas cat, which overall is considered Near Threatened.
Closest cat-family relatives:
Phylogenetic studies indicate that the Pampas cat’s closest relative might be Leopardus jacobita, the little Andes mountain dweller we’re going to meet next week, but that’s not completely certain.
In fact, relationships between most small cats of the ocelot lineage are problematical.
It’s this group that gives taxonomists and other academic cat herders so much trouble.
Because genetic testing suggests that there’s been a whole lot of interspecies hanky-panky going on here.
Another problem is that, unlike in Asia and to a lesser extent Africa, cats are new to South America.
It used to be surrounded by water until a few million years ago, when plate tectonic movements brought it into contact with North America.
Once that happened, big cats, pumas, sabercats, and ancestral members of the ocelot lineage quickly spread out across the land.
What with long tropical nights, moonlight, and the aroma of tropical flowers borne on warm, gentle breezes . . . no, actually, hybridization often happens in the animal kingdom when a new environment is invaded. (Seehausen)
Lions (now extinct in the New World) and jaguars may have mixed it up a bit (Li et al., 2019), but so much hybridization happened in the ocelot lineage that it has complicated scientific understanding of small South American cats today.
It’s especially problematical in the little spotted cats known as tigrinas and oncillas (which is why I haven’t done a post on them, although they’ll be in the book).
The extent to which hybridization has affected Pampas cats isn’t clear yet, though biologists are investigating it. Some experts suspect that Pampas cats might actually be a whole complex of species, as the little spotted cats possibly are.
However that turns out, Pampas cats definitely have contributed to the hybridization problem in other species.
Researchers report that the entire mitochondrial genome of some little spotted cats in Brazil has been replaced by that originating in the Pampas cat! (da Silva Santos et al.)
How Pampas cats hunt and live:
Pampas cats hunt on the ground, not in trees. They take small prey, generally rodents and other mammals, as well as ground-dwelling birds.
Near the coast in Patagonia, they even raid penguin nests!
Some studies have shown Pampas cats to be daytime hunters, while others indicate more nocturnal habits.
Wildlife biologists are still studying how Pampas cats share resources with other small cats like the Andes mountain cat, Geoffroy’s cat, and the little spotted cats of the lowlands.
How they reproduce:
Very little is known about this.
The people they send out to study Pampas cat families in the wild just leave behind some video footage . . .
Seriously, the Pampas cat is extremely difficult to locate and study in the wild.
Interactions with people:
This has always been an elusive cat. That’s even more true today, since human use of the landscape is expanding and Pampas cats apparently do not do well in altered habitats.
While they generally avoid us, in parts of the High Andes, these and Andes mountain cats represent Earth’s abundance and fertility in traditional belief systems.
Killing these cats is said to bring misfortunate and death to the hunter and his family. At the same time, though, cat skins and stuffed cats are handed down through families and used in agricultural ceremonies.
None are known.
Yes, as Near Threatened.
While the Pampas cat is no longer widely hunted for its fur, changes in habitat from human activities are likely threats to its population. Dogs and road traffic also kill off many cats each year.
Sadly, L. colocola is now considered extinct on the central Argentinian pampas, though it’s still present in other parts of the country as well as in the Brazilian grasslands.
It was thought to have vanished from Uruguay, too, but recently there have been some sightings there — an encouraging sign!
Pampas cats are rare everywhere, but their highest numbers right now are in High Andes places where there is greenery and enough prey to support both them and the Andes mountain cat.
Conservationists say that, in addition to sorting out its species name(s), research is urgently needed on the Pampas cat’s ecology, distribution, and response to the human presence in much of its range.
Meanwhile, it appears that some Pampas cats in Argentina’s subtropical forest might be investigating us!
Featured image: Prefeitura de Belo Horizonte, public domain
Cat Specialist Group. 2019. Pampas cat. http://www.catsg.org/index.php?id=87 Last accessed September 8, 2019.
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Wikipedia. 2019. Pampas cat. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pampas_cat Last accessed September 8, 2019.