This wide-ranging South American cat has many names. The most common one — “margay” — is French; this sounds similar to “maracaya,” a Brazilian native word for “cat.”
According to the Cat Specialist Group, other local names include, but aren’t limited to:
- Burricon (Ecuador)
- Kuichua (Guyana)
- Caucel (Honduras)
- Chulul (Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula)
Yes, margays get around. And, per the Spanish Wikipedia, they are also known as “gato tigre” or “tigrillo.”
The margay’s scientific name is straightforward: Leopardus wiedii.
In the past, boffins have identified up to 11 subspecies but that’s debatable now.
Kitchener et al. (2017) suspect there might be only three margay subspecies:
- Leopardus wiedii wiedii, south of the Amazon
- L. w. vigens, in South America north of the Amazon
- L. w. glauculus, in Central America
- Distinctive physical characteristics like huge, bulging eyes, which narrow this nocturnal predator’s muzzle and make the nose look almost pug-like; very large paws, the better to grasp tree bark and branches (see below); and a long, thick tail that helps these cats balance during their tree-top acrobatics.(Cat Specialist Group; Kitchener et al., 2010)
“Resting” also includes play.
- Strongly associated with forests, and better adapted to them than other tropical cats in the Americas. This fondness for trees misled early researchers into thinking that margays spend most of their lives up in the canopy. Camera traps and other studies now show that the margay probably just rests up there during the day, and at night it hunts and travels on the ground. But, while other cats are fairly flexible about their surroundings, margays do live almost exclusively in forests. Modeling by Espinosa et al. suggests that this might be due to the humidity and fairly steady temperatures that tropical forests provide. (Cat Specialist Group; Migliorini et al.; de Oliveira et al., 2010)
- The only New World cat with 180-degree ankles. With this feature, a margay’s hind feet can hold on while the cat comes out of a tree head first. Most other kitties would fall. Asia’s marbled cats and clouded leopards are the only other members of family Felidae with this ankle flexibility. (Cat Specialist Group; Migliorini et al.; de Oliveira et al., 2010)
- Not much sexual dimorphism. That sounds a little funky, but it only means that males and females are about the same size. Most other cats are dimorphic, that is, the males are bigger than the females. (Cat Specialist Group; de Oliveira et al. (2015))
- One of the Latin American cats most heavily exploited by the fur trade until the 1980s. Between the mid-1970s and mid-1980s, at least 125,000 margay pelts were traded. This species were added to the international treaties protecting endangered species in the late 1980s and it really helped. However, illegal hunting continues in some areas. (Cat Specialist Group)
This information is from the Cat Specialist Group, except where noted.
- Weight: 5 to 11 pounds.
- Height at the shoulder: 12 to 18 inches. (Murray and Gardner)
- Body length: 18 to 27 inches.
- Tail length: 9 to 21 inches. Per Kitchener et al. (2010), margay tails can be up to 70% of the combined head/body length — a very effective balancing tool!
- Coat: Thick but soft, typically yellowish, though the fur can be browner. Kitchener et al. (2017) mention a study that found Central American margays are not only smaller but a little grayer than their South American counterparts. The markings of dark brown or black rosettes are very similar to the ocelot’s (some South Americans even call margays “little ocelots”). On some individuals, rosettes may be elongated and arranged in stripe-like rows (again, just like the ocelot). Margays have two cheek stripes, as well as white fur on their underparts, and a ringed tail.
- Litter size: 1 to 2.
Where found in the wild:
Margays are occasionally seen in the US Southwest, but these are probably just individuals from Mexico, wandering around.
The margay’s main range isn’t well understood yet, since this is a shy, elusive forest dweller and very difficult to track. Per latest reports by the Cat Specialist Group and de Oliveira et al. (2015), breeding populations of margays are probably distributed from Mexico’s lowlands in the north down through Central America and into South America as far Uruguay and northern Argentina.
Their main stronghold probably is the Amazon Basin. Margays are common in some parts of Central America, but outside of Amazonia they seem to be rare, perhaps because of the “ocelot effect” (ocelots — bigger than margays and the dominant tropical small cat in the Americas — sometimes prey on their smaller feline neighbors, who therefore avoid them). (Cat Specialist Group; de Oliveira et al, 2010 and 2015)
- Range of environments: Margays appear to be most comfortable from sea level up to around 5,000 feet, but they’ve been seen at elevations almost twice that high in the Andes. At those heights, plants must sometimes depend on passing clouds for moisture. Besides cloud forests, margays hunt through humid foothill woods, among deciduous trees, and in subtropical forests, as well as in the Amazon rainforest. They will use human-altered environments, like abandoned plantations, but seem to be less tolerant of such changes than tiger cats or ocelots. (Cat Specialist Group)
- Prey base: Mostly small mammals (weight of a pound or less) that come out at night, particularly rodents; next on the menu are birds and lizards. Margays occasionally take slightly larger mammals, too, like squirrels, rabbits, or small monkeys, as well as poultry, though not to any great extent, though margays are persecuted as pests in some places. (Cat Specialist Group; de Oliveira et al., 2015)
- Example of guild: There are all sorts of predators in the margay’s range, but I could only find studies that looked at cats (this could be partly because all other South American carnivores are generalists, taking what they get instead of existing on meat alone like cats).
Jaguars and pumas aren’t the only cats in Latin America. Ocelots are a little smaller, but they’re anywhere from two to four times as large as the rest of the feline carnivore guild, so the “ocelot effect” on these small cats (which include the margay) is understandable.
Margays and jaguarundis are next in size after ocelots. And jaguarundis — relatives of the puma — usually outnumber margays everywhere.
The margay is second most numerous small cat throughout Amazonia and Central America. In the Atlantic rainforest on Brazil’s eastern coast, margays vie with southern tiger cats for second place.
In open areas, you hardly ever see a margay unless there are patches of forest around; on the Brazilian pampas, for example, margays are present but vastly outnumbered by jaguarundis and two of the smaller South American wild felines: Geoffroy’s cat and (of course) the pampas cat. (Espinosa et al.; Migliorini et al; de Oliveira et al., 2010; de Oliveira and Pereira)
Vulnerable, though the red-listing team (de Oliveira et al, 2015) note that more studies are needed to get an accurate idea of the margay’s status and distribution.
Featured image: David O’Brien/Shutterstock
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Espinosa, C. C.; Trigo, T. C.; Tirelli, F. P.; da Silva, L. G.; and others. 2017. Geographic distribution modeling of the margay (Leopardus wiedii) and jaguarundi (Puma yagouaroundi): a comparative assessment. Journal of Mammalogy, 99(1): 252-262.
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