Though ancient supereruptions have shaped this place into an otherworldly landscape, it’s teeming with life.
“I really LOVE this rock!”–Andes mountain cat. Perhaps the researchers who set up this camera trap used a spray that would attract Andean cats. Adorably. (Video by Grupo de Ecologia Comportamental de Mamiferos/Alianza Gato Andino via uivmqdtp)
By the way, those aren’t rabbits. They’re rodents and an important part of the Andean cat’s diet.
The little cats with rosettes in this video are Pampas cats. In the High Andes, it’s sometimes difficult even for experts to tell them apart from mountain cats.
But, going by its black nose — Pampas cats have light-colored noses — the laid-back little rock-fan on center stage is the extremely rare Andean cat.
Leopardus jacobita, based on genetic testing in the 1990s. (Johnson et al., 1998)
Before that, the Andean cat had its own genus, taken from Greek words for “mountain” and “cat”: Oreailurus.
As for common names, many sources still call it the Andes mountain cat, but researchers appear to be opting more and more for an English version of the local Spanish name – gato andino, “Andean cat.”
Most probably the ocelot lineage, which is where Leopardus came in.
However, it’s still a little iffy. (Werdelin et al.)
These are from the Cat Specialist Group website, unless otherwise mentioned.
Of note, this medium-sized cat is very rare; it’s difficult to conduct studies in the High Andes; and there are no known cats in captivity. Felinologists are doing the best they can, but there is still much to learn about these kitties.
- Weight: 9 to 13 pounds.
- Height at the shoulder: 14 inches. (Wikipedia)
- Body length: 22 to 30 inches.
- Tail length: 16 to 19 inches; yes, this is an unusually long tail for the Andean cat’s size. Yensen and Seymour speculate that it’s used for balance while chasing prey among the rocks, but according to Marino et al., that’s not necessarily the case.
- Coat: The fur is over an inch thick and reportedly rather lynx-like when you run your hand over it (pelts and a few museum specimens were all people had to study until recently). The ash-gray background color of an Andean cat’s coat is covered with brownish-yellow to dark gray or black splotches that align vertically on either side but aren’t true stripes. These colors are often light at first, darkening with age. The under fur is white with dark spots and bars. Each leg has linear markings that don’t quite connect up into rings, while the fluffy tail definitely has dark brown to black rings, anywhere from 6 to 9 of them. In some Andean cats, the tip of the tail is whitish. (CSG, IUCN, Yensen and Seymour)
- Average litter size: One — all that has been seen on camera traps.
- Average life span: Unknown.
Features unique to this cat:
No clear-cut “first!” is given to Andean cats in the various sources I’ve consulted, but they do say that this is one of the rarest cats in the world, as well as one of the least known members of the family Felidae.
Unlike many of their relatives, Andean cats seem to prefer extreme conditions, even in the “lowlands” of northern Patagonia.
Where found in the wild:
For a long time, zoologists thought that this cat was strictly a resident of the High Andes, around 12,000 feet, in southern Peru, southwestern Bolivia, northeastern Chile, and northern Argentina.
However, Andean cats have recently been recorded at lower elevations in central Argentina, as well as on the northern Patagonia steppes down to roughly 2,100 feet above sea level.
While very little is known yet about these felines, their main habitat requirements in the mountains and on the steppe seem to include:
- A dry climate
- Extreme weather conditions
- Sparse, patchy vegetation
- Rocky terrain, especially along valley walls
Probably not coincidentally, the Andean cat’s main prey also prefers such conditions.
Closest cat-family relatives:
This is a little complicated.
Most sources I have read accept the finding by Johnson et al. (2006) that Andean cats and Pampas cats are very closely related.
However, Werdelin et al. do note that the exact position of Andes mountain cats in Family Felidae isn’t completely certain yet.
And, in a broader study of carnivores that used fossils as well as molecular data, Nyakatura and Bininda-Emonds identified Andean cats as a sister group to the rest of the ocelot lineage, i.e., a little apart from the rest of these species.
So it’s not yet written in stone. As more information comes in, though, experts will eventually reach a consensus.
How Andean cats hunt and live:
We’ve seen a little of the surprising diversity of life in the Andean cat’s stomping grounds.
The question is, how does this feline share these prey resources with other High Andes carnivores?
Pumas are the apex predator, but they go after larger prey, like goats and vicunas (the wild equivalent of llamas and alpacas).
Pampas and Andean cats are more likely competitors, since they’re almost the same size and hunt the same sort of prey.
Oddly enough, though, studies have not been able to show just how these two cats manage to coexist.
Perhaps the Pampas cat is more of a generalist, taking birds and other rodents, while the Andes mountain cat sticks with mountain vizcachas — a rodent that, thanks to convergent evolution, looks a bit like a rabbit.
Conservationists speculate that Andean cats used to rely on mountain chinchillas until those were overhunted into local extinction over the past century.
The Andean cat could do worse: Pampas cats would have to catch over 20 of the other local rodents to get the equivalent of a single adult vizcacha dinner. (Marino et al.)
This specialization, along with physical adaptations to handle cold temperatures, high altitude, and arid environments, could give Andean cats a little competitive edge when Pampas cats are around. However, no detailed ecological studies have been reported yet. (Marino et al.)
How they reproduce:
No one really knows. Camera trap images and videos like the one above occasionally show an adult accompanied by a single cub.
And sometimes a pair of mature Andean cats appear. This might be during the mating season, which the Cat Specialist Group suggests runs from July to December, with births occurring generally between October and April.
However, they also note that, in the Bolivian altiplano, locals say the cats breed in July and August. Despite that, cubs have been observed here from April to September, and occasionally in October.
Interactions with people:
If it had been up to this species, cats would never have been domesticated. Unlike Fluffy’s wild ancestor, Andean cats keep their distance from human settlements. (MacDonald et al.)
No wonder this is known locally as the “ghost cat”!
Some native people, particularly in Bolivian, Peru, and northern Chile, revere both the Andean and Pampas cats as symbols of Earth’s fertility and abundance. Sadly, this often leads to hunting them so that skins and stuffed cats can be used in agricultural and livestock ceremonies.
No Andean cat fossils have been recognized.
This is one of the few small cats red-listed as Endangered.
The Andean cat was upgraded globally from Vulnerable to Endangered in 2002 when conservationists noted that populations were smaller and more fragmented than first thought.
On a local level, L. jacobita is considered critically endangered in Bolivia, Endangered in Chile and Peru, and Vulnerable in Argentina. (Cat Specialist Group)
Overall, it’s estimated that there are only 2,755 Andean cats out there, 1,378 of them mature adults. (Villalba et al., 2016)
The threats facing them aren’t well understood yet. It may be that the Andean cat’s remoteness and elusive nature can keep it relatively safe. But conservation is needed, too. (Marino et al.)
In addition to hunting for cultural purposes, Andean cats are sometimes killed on sight either “just because” or due to a local superstition that they’re bad luck. And in northern Patagonia, they’re considered pests that prey on domestic animals.
But these little mountain cats do have human admirers, too.
The Andean Cat Alliance and other conservationists are gathering more information about L. jacobita and its challenging but fragile high-altitude ecosystem.
They’re also educating people about this rare feline and promoting long-term measures that will, hopefully, ensure that these cats continue to roam the High Andes over the foreseeable future.
Given the ease with which this kitty navigates those surfaces, it’s hard to believe that many of them are close to vertical. May you prowl gracefully back and forth over them forever, little “ghost cat”!
Featured image: From camera-trap video, 2011, by Grupo de Ecologia Comportamental de Mamiferos/Alianza Gato Andino via uivmqdtp
Cat Specialist Group. 2019. Andean cat. http://www.catsg.org/index.php?id=86 Last accessed September 15, 2019.
Cossíos, E. D.; Walker, R. S.; Lucherini, M.; Ruiz-García, M.; and Angers, B. 2012. Population structure and conservation of a high-altitude specialist, the Andean cat Leopardus jacobita. Endangered Species Research, 16(3): 283-294.
Ewer, R. F. 1973. The carnivores. The World Naturalist, ed. Carrington, R. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
Johnson, W. E.; Culver, M.; Iriarte, J. A.; Eizirik, E.; and others. 1998. Tracking the evolution of the elusive Andean mountain cat (Oreailurus jacobita from mitochondrial DNA. Journal of Heredity, 89(3): 227-232.
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.; 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
Lucherini, M.; Reppucci, J. I.; Walker, R. S.; Villalba, M. L.; and others. 2009. Activity pattern segregation of carnivores in the high Andes. Journal of Mammalogy, 90(6): 1404-1409.
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.
Marino, J.; Lucherini, M.; Villalba, M. L.; Bennett, M.; and others. 2010. Highland cats: ecology and conservation of the rare and elusive Andean cat, in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, eds. Macdonald, D. W., and Loveridge, A. J., 581-596. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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.
Reppucci, J.; Gardner, B.; and Lucherini, M. 2011. Estimating detection and density of the Andean cat in the high Andes. Journal of Mammalogy, 92(1): 140-147.
Sunquist, M. and Sunquist, F. 2002. Wild Cats of the World. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. Retrieved from https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=IF8nDwAAQBAJ
Villalba, M. L.; Bernal, N.; Nowell, K.; and Macdonald, D. W. 2012. Distribution of two Andean small cats (Leopardus jacobita and Leopardus colocolo) in Bolivia and the potential impacts of traditional beliefs on their conservation. Endangered Species Research, 16(1): 85-94.
Villalba, L.; Lucherini, M.; Walker, S.; Lagos, N.; and others. 2016. Leopardus jacobita. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T15452A50657407. https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/15452/50657407 Last accessed September 15, 2019.
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. Andean mountain cat. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andean_mountain_cat Last accessed September 15, 2019.
Yensen, E., and Seymour, K. L. 2000. Oreailurus jacobita. Mammalian Species, 2000(644): 1-6.