Species Fact: The Tiger Cats


This is actually a complex of small Latin American spotted cats, and they’re unrelated to true tigers. (Kitchener et al) The best way I can introduce these little cuties is by drawing a parallel with house cats.

You know how Fluffy hardly ever comes when you call, especially if it involves something technical like going to the vet? Well, in much the same way (though unwittingly) tiger cats elude those who want to name them.

Their common names in English and other languages are all over the place. Some are even used for margays and/or ocelots, too.

“Tiger cat” is a translation of one of the most common Spanish terms for these “little spotted cats” (another name). You might also have heard of them as “oncillas” or “tigrinas.”

Jan Murin, CC BY 2.0

Looking closer at them just complicates things. Here’s the Cat Specialist Group on that:

The tiger cats (Leopardus tigrinus/Leopardus guttulus) . . . pose an exquisite genetic puzzle . . . To add more genetic oddity for the tiger cat species, there has been ancient historic hybridization between L. guttulus and the Geoffroy’s cat (L. geoffroyi). However, there has been no indication of mixing whatsoever between the two former single species. In other words, tiger cats mixed with other species but not between themselves!

Fortunately, while experts sort through species and subspecies, it’s okay to think of the group as either “tiger cats” (they’re all alike in many ways) or, when it matters, as northern tiger cats (L. tigrinus) and southern tiger cats (L. guttulus).



Outstanding Features:

Tiger cats don’t play by the rules. (Image: FOTOGRIN/Shutterstock)
  1. The aforementioned genetic puzzle.
  2. Part of a double-hybrid zone. Tiger cats mix with both Geoffroy’s cat and the pampas cat in parts of Brazil; there is even record of both Geoffroy cat and pampas cat genetic markers in a single tiger cat! (Li et al; Trigo et al.)
  3. Heavily used in the fur trade. At one time tiger cat pelts were prized commodities, with over 350,000 traded between 1976 and 1985. (Cat Specialist Group)
  4. Considered to be the rarest carnivore in Amazonia. The Amazon basin somehow separates northern and southern groups, but some researchers have found a few tiger cats in there. No one has yet found the point that separates northern and southern species, though. (Culver et al.; de Oliveira et al., 2016; Oliveira; Payan and Oliveira)
  5. Smallest Brazilian cat and one of the smallest South American cats. Individual size varies from place to place, but generally speaking, only the guigna/kodkod — a close relative — is smaller. (Oliveira; de Oliveira et al; Sunquist and Sunquist.)


This information is from the Cat Specialist Group, except where noted. Northern and southern tiger cats look alike, and both groups vary quite a bit in size and appearance.

Tambako the Jaguar, CC BY-ND 2.0

  • Weight: 4 to 8 pounds
  • Body length: 15 to 23 inches
  • Tail length: 8 to 17 inches
  • Coat: Thick but short fur with a background color ranging from pale yellow to ocher or yellowish brown. Tiger cat markings are similar to the margay, but they have more dark spots, as well as rosettes that are smaller and more numerous than the margay’s. The belly fur is very lightly colored, and the tail has rings on it (reportedly fewer on the northern tiger cat’s tail). All-black (melanistic) tiger cats are not uncommon.
  • Vocals: Not a lot of information is available, but Sunquist and Sunquist report that young tiger cats purr while adults have a soft, short, rhythmic gurgle in friendly situations.
  • Litter size: Usually 1, sometimes 2. (de Oliveira et al., 2016)

Where found in the wild:

In Central America, look for northern tiger cats from the high mountains of Costa Rica into northern Panama. They don’t seem to be in southern Panama, but they do inhabit northeastern Brazil and much of northern South America apart from the Amazon Basin. Southern tiger cats have been seen in parts of central to southern Brazil, eastern Paraguay, and northeastern Argentina. (Cat Specialist Group; de Nascimento and Feijo; Payan and de Oliveira)


  • Range of environments: From coastal marshy areas up to dwarf forests at treeline in the Andes and on Costa Rican volcanoes. That said, there is just too much specific information (because of the scientific curiosity about genetics and species) to summarize here — check out some of the sources listed at the end of this chapter. As I understand the Cat Specialist Group’s pages on each species, northern tiger cats prefer the Central American and Colombian high country (3,000 to as much as 15,000 feet), most often living in cloud forests, while in Brazil they’re typically seen below 1,600 feet, often in savannas, scrublands, or forests. Southern tiger cats stay below 7,000 feet and prowl through a variety of habitats — tropical and subtropical rainforests, other forest types, open savannas, and beach vegetation.
  • Prey base: There haven’t been many studies on this yet. (Tortato and de Oliveira) Tiger cats are probably generalists, taking whatever comes their way. They are known to prey on small mammals, birds, and reptiles, especially lizards. (Cat Specialist Group)
  • Example of guild: Again, there isn’t much information available on tiger cats. According to de Oliveira and Pereira, they’re one of the most common small South American land predators, along with lesser grisons, weasels, olingos, skunks, and mountain coatis, but they are occasionally attacked by ocelots, pumas, and jaguars. In the Atlantic rainforest of northeastern Brazil, Oliveira-Santos et al. report that tiger cats may shift their activity time, which is usually at night and around dawn and dusk, to daylight hours in order to avoid encounters with margays, ocelots, and pumas.

Let’s not forget that this cute little cat is a killer and can be an apex predator when larger cats aren’t around, as seems to be the case in this high-altitude Costa Rican forest. During this video, it kills a small rodent and a pointy-nosed something that might be either a coati or the Latin American equivalent of a wolverine (a grison).

Red-list status:

Both groups of tiger cats are considered Vulnerable, but please see the red-listing pages listed below (de Oliveira et al.; Payan and de Oliveira) for details. It’s a little complex because of the whole “genetic puzzle” thing.

Featured image: Tambako the Jaguar, CC BY-ND 2.0.


Cat Specialist Group. 2020. Northern tiger cat. http://www.catsg.org/index.php?id=91 Last accessed January 4, 2020.

Cat Specialist Group. 2020. Southern tiger cat. http://www.catsg.org/index.php?id=600 Last accessed January 4, 2020.

Culver, M.; Driscoll, C.; Eizirik, E.; and Spong, G. 2010. Genetic applications in wild felids, in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, ed. Macdonald, D. W., and Loveridge, A. J., 107-124. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cunha, C. J.; de Oliveira Moreira, D.; Seibert, J. B.; and Gatti, A. 2017. Research gaps and trends on the feeding ecology of Leopardus wiedii and Leopardus guttulus. Boletim do Museu de Biologia Mello Leitão: 39(1).

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

Li, G.; Davis, B. W.; Eizirik, E.; and Murphy, W. J. 2016. Phylogenomic evidence for ancient hybridization in the genomes of living cats (Felidae). Genome Research, 26(1): 1-11.

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.

do Nascimento, F. O., and Feijó, A. 2017. Taxonomic revision of the oncillas Leopardus tigrinus (Schreber, 1775)(Carnivora, Felidae). Papéis Avulsos de Zoologia: 57(19).

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

de Oliveira, T. G. 2004. The oncilla in Amazonia: unraveling a myth. Cat News, 41: 29-32.

de Oliveira, T. G., and Pereira, J. A. 2014. Intraguild predation and interspecific killing as structuring forces of carnivoran communities in South America. Journal of Mammalian Evolution, 21(4): 427-436.

de Oliveira, T. G.; Tortato, M. A.; Silveira, L.; Kasper, C. B.; and others. 2010. Ocelot ecology and its effect on the small-felid guild in the lowland neotropics, in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, ed. Macdonald, D. W., and Loveridge, A. J., 559-580. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

de Oliveira, T.; Trigo, T.; Tortato, M.; Paviolo, A.; and others. 2016. Leopardus guttulus . The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T54010476A54010576. https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/54010476/54010576

Oliveira-Santos, L. G.; Graipel, M. E.; Tortato, M. A.; Zucco, C. A.; and others. 2012. Abundance changes and activity flexibility of the oncilla, Leopardus tigrinus (Carnivora: Felidae), appear to reflect avoidance of conflict. Zoologia: 29(2).

Payan, E. and de Oliveira, T. 2016. Leopardus tigrinus . The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T54012637A50653881 https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/54012637/50653881

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

Tortato, M. A., and de Oliveira, T. G. 2005. Ecology of the oncilla (Leopardus tigrinus) at Serra do Tabuleiro State Park, southern Brazil. Cat News, 42: 28-30.

Trigo, T. C.; Freitas, T. R. O.; Kunzler, G.; Cardoso, L.; and others. 2008. Inter‐species hybridization among Neotropical cats of the genus Leopardus, and evidence for an introgressive hybrid zone between L. geoffroyi and L. tigrinus in southern Brazil. Molecular Ecology, 17(19): 4317-4333.

Wikipedia. 2019. Leopardus guttulus. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leopardus_guttulus Last accessed January 4, 2020.

___. 2019. Oncilla. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oncilla Last accessed January 4, 2020.

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