This cutie is the feline equivalent of a sports utility player, yet it’s also one of the least known wild cats.
First off, no one knows exactly how jaguarundis fit into Family Felidae, although genetic testing has helped somewhat.
Secondly, how do they manage to coexist with an impressive assortment of other Latin American cats without either dominating or being driven out of their habitat?
Finally, and this is the biggie, what is the jaguarundi’s true status in the wild and how can we best protect it?
(Spoiler alert: These questions remain unanswered today, but the experts continue to work away at it.)
Taxonomists perk up their ears when they hear the controversial word Herpailurus, but it’s just Latin to the rest of us.
Still, this is one weird-looking cat. Let’s try to classify jaguarundis by elimination:
They aren’t otters, despite appearances:
Nor are they related to jaguars, despite having a native name that sounds similar. As far as I can tell, those are two different words.
But they don’t look like regular cats, either — it’s hard to categorize jaguarundis.
Western scientists were also puzzled by this New World cat from early in the 19th century until 2006. That’s when geneticists Johnson et al. (see source list) reported conclusively that jaguarundis have close connections to pumas and cheetahs.
Okay. So, for a while, this was now Puma yagouaroundi in scientific circles.
But then someone pointed out complex details showing that jaguarundis are rather unique; these experts reached back into earlier discussions about the cat and hauled out the genus name Herpailurus for it.
And the debate was on.
At the time of writing, it continues. Right now, according to Kitchener et al., the consensus is that jaguarundis should still be considered a separate genus — Herpailurus.
However, they add, new evidence from fossils or molecular data might eventually support those who argue that jaguarundis are actually a puma subgenus.
It just hasn’t shown up yet.
Here’s a puma (ground) and jaguarundi (net) — you decide!
These are per the Cat Specialist Group website unless otherwise specified.
- Weight: 7 to 15 pounds.
- Height at the shoulder: 1 to 2 feet (Johnson)
- Body length: 19 to 31 inches.
- Tail length: 11 to 23 inches.
- Coat: Short and generally a solid color. Depending on which source you consult, jaguarundis come in either two or three colors. The Cat Specialist Group goes with three — brownish-black, gray, and yellowish-red. Brownish-black, they say, is often seen in the rainforest and yellowish-red in drier, more open habitats, but any color can turn up in any environment. Kittens often have light spots, which fade as they mature.
Warning: Sleepy kitten cuteness! Back in the 19th century, these two different colors were thought to be separate species. Nowadays, we know that red is the original jaguarundi color and the melanistic shade, though more common, is due to an MC1R genetic mutation. (Eizirik et al.) These differences can even show up in the same litter!
- Vocals: See the next section.
- Average litter size: 1 to 4 kittens, usually 2.
- Average life span: 10 to 20 years.
Features unique to this cat:
Jaguarundis are remarkably chatty compared to many of their relatives. The Cat Specialist Group reports that they have at least 13 different calls, ranging from purring and whistling on up to chirping like a bird.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any videos with these sounds, although you do see many the cats making weird movements with their lips.
This is the only type of call that showed up in a video search:
The jaguarundi usually looks bored in these videos; perhaps shouting is a change of pace? Then again, this might be a mating call or perhaps the equivalent of “Is anyone out there?”
Where found in the wild:
Here’s where the “utility player” comparison comes in.
Jaguarundis are found in just about every habitat that Latin America has to offer, from cloud forest to dry coastal scrubland. They’re never the top predator, but there they are, keeping the local rodent population in check.
They apparently prefer lowlands (under 7,000 feet, though jaguarundis are occasionally seen at higher elevations), and landscapes that are fairly open overall but have areas of dense undergrowth or thick grass stands.
Like this. (Ignore the shaky-cam and hang in there to see Mom call her two cubs — they join her near the end of the video)
This adapatibillity to various environments (and probably also the omnipresence of rodents and other small vertebrates) is why jaguarundis are second only to the puma in latitude range.
You might see one from central Argentina or northern Peru up through Mesoamerica to at least as far north as Tamaulipas State, Mexico, where jaguarundis inhabit thornscrub (unless there are ocelots around).
Competitive interactions with bobcats (Lynx rufus) might limit their northern range, since both species prefer relatively open areas. (Giordano)
There haven’t been any confirmed sightings lately in southern Texas, where jaguarundis once roamed, though some reportedly were spotted around Laguna Atascosa Wildlife Refuge, per Giordano.
US conservationists are trying to restore some lower Rio Grande habitat and to bring in jaguarundis, but here, as in Latin America, the “ocelot effect” will probably limit the numbers of these small wild cats in reserves and parks. Conservation of rare cats is never easy!
Dr. Wikipedia notes that jaguarundis have been reported in Florida, where they were probably introduced early in the 20th century.
There have also been a few unconfirmed sightings in southern Alabama. However, state conservationists there say that no evidence exists of breeding populations in Alabama or in any adjacent state. (Johnson)
In South America, jaguarundis inhabit most of the lowland places we’ve already looked at, but they may be most abundant in seasonal dry, Atlantic tropical forest, gallery, and mixed grassland/agriculture forest landscapes.
Note that I’m using words like “may” and “apparently.” That’s because this is a very elusive cat; it’s even difficult to catch for radiotelemetry studies.
Jaguarundis were once considered to be very common, since they’re active during the day (when people are around to see them), unlike many of the other Latin American felines.
But they’re not showing up all that often on camera traps.
Those that do appear can be adorable! But jaguarundis have no spots or other distinctive markings, so it’s hard for professional cat herders to identify individuals in their counts.
This gives wildlife biologists a few problems, including the fact that:
- They probably overestimated population numbers earlier.
- Without data, they can’t observe how jaguarundis live, use the environment, and interact with other cats. This is of particular importance because of the wide geographic area involved and the many different small cat species out there (we’ve only met a couple of those — ocelots and the pampas cat).
- Without data, conservationists can’t use their modeling techniques to estimate the cat’s presence in the wild. Per Giordano, this is particularly a problem when it comes to figuring out the native jaguarundi presence in northern Mexico and, perhaps, in Arizona or Texas.
Closest cat-family relatives:
It’s easier to believe jaguarundis are related to pumas and cheetahs when you look at each species’ long, sleek body, powerful hind legs, and the proportionately small head.
Scientists recognize even more similarities.
Some aspects of jaguarundis (namely, those mentioned by Kitchener et al. in discussing the Herpailurus issue mentioned above) are very puma like.
But in other details — for instance, their incompletely retracted hind claws (Cat Specialist Group) — jaguarundis resemble cheetahs.
The big question, of course, is why pumas and jaguarundis are prowling the Americas while cheetahs are racing over Old World plains. We’ll look at that in more detail next week, when we get to the cheetah.
How jaguarundis live:
As mentioned above, not a lot is known about this.
Researchers are currently at the “We found one!” stage. They hope to not only establish how many jaguarundis are out there, and where, but also to understand how these little “utility players” coexist with their neighbors.
That’s not so easy when the cat you’re studying is so flexible and covers such a wide range of habitats.
Whatever the region, a jaguarundi is more likely than other cats to use open areas, like grasslands, but usually it’s seen close to denser vegetation.
These small cats are excellent climbers (and, as we’ve seen, swimmers), but they hunt on the ground and typically take prey weighing 2 pounds or less. Occasionally jaguarundis will go for something a little larger, such as possums, cottontails, and armadillos.
They’re considered a generalist, like the puma (Giordano), but it all depends on location.
A study in the Brazilian pampa by Migliorini et al., for example, showed that jaguarundis were the most specialized of any small cat predator, hunting mostly Brazilian guinea pigs.
Perhaps that was due to the limited kinds of prey out in the grasslands, as well as the presence of the pampas cat.
Other studies show a somewhat wider range of rodent species in the jaguarundi diet, as well as a fair number of birds and reptiles.
Some jaguarundis have a taste for fruit, and captive animals reportedly enjoy grapes and bananas as treats! (Ewer)
Biologists are very curious about this cat’s social behavior because, quite often, more than one jaguarundi is seen at a time.
Are they naturally more sociable than other cat species, or could these groups just be related or a courting pair?
Sometimes it’s easy to tell from the context.
At other times, who knows?
This is from a Portuguese-language TV show segment highlighting jaguarundi presence in Brazil’s Caatinga — one of the South American biomes east of the Andes that we recently checked out.
How they reproduce:
In captivity, after a gestation of some 70 to 75 days, kittens weighing about 5 ounces are born, blind and deaf.
They open their eyes during the first 8 to 10 days and are ready to leave the den at 4 weeks of age.
They can take solid food then, but will continue to suckle for up to another month.
Interactions with people:
There is a problem with jaguarundi flexibility. These cats can tolerate human-altered landscapes better than other wild cats, and they sometimes develop a taste for domestic poultry.
This, plus the jaguarundi’s daytime lifestyle, leads to retaliation killing. Giordano reports that the problem may be widespread in rural areas, often going unreported.
Otherwise, while they have been seen crossing roads and moving through developed areas, these shy cats try to avoid people.
The oldest known jaguarundi fossil is less than 500,000 years old.
However, Chimento et al. link jaguarundis to an ancient cat, called Puma pumoides, whose fossils have been found in Pliocene deposits in Argentina. They include this long-extinct kitty in the Herpailurus genus, and that discussion is ongoing.
As I understand it, the key point that needs clearing up is just exactly when pumas and jaguarundis went their separate evolutionary ways — before South America and North America hooked up, or afterwards (see Kitchener et al. and references therein for a thorough discussion).
Cats were in North America before plate tectonics connected up South America to it via the Panama Isthmus. They moved south, along with many other mammals, and contributed to these extinctions. What experts are wondering about with jaguarundis and pumas is whether the two species had already developed before this happened (which would tend to support the “Herpailurus is a unique genus” argument) or after they got into South America (making the possibility of a Puma subgenus for Herpailurus more credible).
Yes, as Least Concern, although jaguarundis in Brazil are considered Vulnerable and in Argentina they’re Near Threatened.
The populations in Mexico, while stable, are listed as Threatened, though their numbers and distribution in northern Mexico are uncertain.
In the US, jaguarundis are considered an endangered species.
Protecting this “utility player,” with all the unknowns that surround it, presents some unique challenges.
These excellent summaries, written in plain English by very knowledgeable people, describe conservation issues and efforts far better than I could.
Featured image: Janusz Pienkowski/Shutterstock
Caso, A.; de Oliveira, T.; and Carvajal, S.V. 2015. Herpailurus yagouaroundi. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015: e.T9948A50653167. https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/9948/50653167
Cat Specialist Group. 2019. Jaguarundi. http://www.catsg.org/index.php?id=93 Last accessed September 23, 2019.
Eizirik, E.; Yuhki, N.; Johnson, W. E.; Menotti-Raymond, M.; and others. 2003. Molecular genetics and evolution of melanism in the cat family. Current Biology. 13: 448-453.
Giordano, A. J. 2016. Ecology and status of the jaguarundi P uma yagouaroundi: a synthesis of existing knowledge. Mammal Review, 46(1): 30-43.
Johnson, G. 2019. Jaguarundi. https://www.outdooralabama.com/carnivores/jaguarundi Last accessed September 26, 2019.
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
Maffei, L.; Noss, A.; and Fiorello, C. 2007. The jaguarundi (puma yagouaroundi) In the kaa iya del gran chaco national park, Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Mastozoología Neotropical, 14(2), 263-266. https://www.redalyc.org/pdf/457/45714211.pdf
Migliorini, R. P.; Peters, F. B.; Favarini, M. O.; and Kasper, C. B. 2018. Trophic ecology of sympatric small cats in the Brazilian Pampa. PloS One, 13(7): e0201257. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0201257
O’Brien, S. J., and Johnson, W. E. 2007. The evolution of cats. Scientific American. 297 (1):68-75.
Segura, V.; Prevosti, F.; and Cassini, G. 2013. Cranial ontogeny in the Puma lineage, Puma concolor, Herpailurus yagouaroundi, and Acinonyx jubatus (Carnivora: Felidae): a three-dimensional geometric morphometric approach. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, 169(1): 235-250.
Shostell, J. M., and Ruiz-Garcia, M. 2013. An introduction to neotropical carnivores, in Molecular population genetics, evolutionary biology and biological conservation of the Neotropical carnivores. p, 1-36.
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
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. Jaguarundi. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jaguarundi Last accessed September 23, 2019.