Species Fact: Ocelots


There is a little uncertainty about where “ocelot” comes from. Aztecs had the word ocelotl, per Wikipedia, but they used it more for jaguars.

Carine06, CC BY-SA 2.0

Another possible origin is ocellatus, which is Latin for “having little eyes.” (Sunquist and Sunquist; Wikipedia)

Not that there’s anything unusual about an ocelot’s beautiful golden-brown eyes — it’s just a good way to describe those striking coat patterns.

That complex mixture of spots, bars, and rosettes has certainly influenced the ocelot’s scientific name, Leopardus pardalis.

Both “Leopardus” and “pardalis” come from the same root as “leopard,” though old-timers used that word, sometimes shortening it to “pard,” for many spotted cat species, not just the famous big cat Panthera pardus.

It was confusing for everybody. Today, scientic studies confirm that leopards and members of the small-cat genus Leopardus are not related (other than being cats).

This simple fact will help you keep it straight — jaguars are the only big cat in “Leopardus” country.


Ocelots are the namesake for the lineage that all small Latin American cats belong to (except the jaguarundi, which shares a genetic “branch” with pumas and cheetahs).

Outstanding Features:

Male ocelot photographed in the Arizona high country in 2015.
(Image: US Fish and Wildlife Service Southwest/University of
Arizona, public domain)

  1. Most preferred pelt in the United States during the height of the fur fashion craze in the 1960s and early 1970s. With up to 200,000 skins sold each year, along with live captures for the exotic pet trade, ocelot populations were decimated in many countries. They have since made a comeback after Brazil and the US banned ocelot hunting and an international treaty to protect endangered animals and plants took effect in 1975, but some illegal poaching for fur and the sale of ocelot cubs as pets still happens. (Macdonald et al.; Wikipedia)
  2. The most abundant and best studied small cat in the New World. Ocelots thrive in many different habitats. In some places, conservationists have found 31 ocelots per 40 square miles. Of course, this isn’t true across the cat’s entire range. For example, ocelots are rare in parts of Brazil, Belize, Mexico, and the US Southwest. (Cat Specialist Group; de Oliveira et al.)
  3. The only mid-sized tropical cat in the Americas that consistently takes prey weighing more than 2 pounds. Unlike their wild feline peers, the ocelot menu is open for everything from small rodents to white-tailed deer and peccaries! In fact, the presence of enough large prey may be the limiting factor on this cat’s abundance. (Cat Specialist Group; de Oliveira et al.)
  4. Uses sense of smell to track down prey. All cats can do this, of course, but most depend more on stalking and ambushing skills. Perhaps because ocelots in the wild live in dense cover, their sense of smell is so highly developed that zookeepers use scent trails to enrich the lives of captive ocelots. (Kitchener et al., 2010)


This information is from the Cat Specialist Group, except where noted.

Josh Henderson, CC BY-SA 2.0

  • Weight: 18 to 33 pounds.
  • Height at the shoulder: 16 to 20 inches. (Wikipedia)
  • Body length: 20 to 40 inches.
  • Tail length: 12 to 20 inches.
  • Coat: Sunquist and Sunquist offer the most succinct word picture of this dramatic coat: “[I]t seems that no single description can be made to fit the variety of markings or color patterns found on the ocelot’s dappled coat. The background color can be anything from cream to tawny yellow, reddish gray, or gray. Ocelot fur is short and close, marked with solid or open-centered dark spots that sometimes run in lines across the body. Where the spots are open, their centers are often darker than the background coat color. The spots on the limbs and feet are smaller and solid. On the shoulders and back the spots may merge like links in a chain to form four or five dark stripes that run from the neck to the base of the tail. The neck and belly are white, and there are one or two transverse bars on the insides of the legs. The tail is ringed with black or has black bars on the upper surface. The hair at the nape of the neck forms a whorl.”
  • Vocals: Ocelots make a number of friendly short-range calls, and yowl during the breeding season. These medium-sized cats do not roar, but as this video shows, their purr is unlike that of a domestic cat.

  • Litter size: 1 to 4 cubs.

Where found in the wild:

Chermundy via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

Look for ocelots throughout Central America and in every South American country but Chile, as well as on Trinidad and Venezuela’s Isla de Margarita. They are most common now on eastern coast of Mexico, though they used to be seen more frequently on this country’s Pacific coast. (Macdonald et al.; Murray and Gardner)

At the far northern edge of their range, an estimated 50 to 80 individuals live in southern Texas, and a few have been sighted in Arizona. Northeastern Argentina is their southernmost territory, and ocelots are probably most abundant in Brazil. (Cat Specialist Group)


  • Range of environments: Ocelots need lots of cover and, of course, plenty of prey. They’ve been observed at elevations of more than 12,000 feet but generally stay below 4,000 feet. Ocelots thrive in many different settings, from coastal mangrove swamps and Amazonian rainforest to dense thornscrub in the arid US Southwest. They also prowl through heavily disturbed areas, like logging sites, and have even been seen on the outskirts of towns and big cities! (Cat Specialist Group; de Oliveira et al.)
  • Prey base: Ocelots have what biologists call a “broad niche” — they will take anything from small mice to white-tailed deer. The most common prey are rodents and small marsupials, but in terms of biomass, ocelots depend on larger animals like big rodents, armadillos, peccaries and other hoofed animals, and perhaps even sloths and monkeys. (de Oliveira et al.)

    Here’s a video of what managers of a wildlife reserve in southern Costa Rica found when they put up trail cameras on their property a few years ago:

  • Example of guild: Ocelots live alongside other Latin American cats. They seem to coexist with their larger relatives — pumas and jaguars — but where there are many ocelots, there are fewer small cats. Experts call this the “ocelot effect.” They suspect it happens for the same reason that lions and tigers outnumber, respectively, cheetahs and leopards — ocelots probably prey on these small feline neighbors. (Macdonald et al.; Murray and Gardner; de Oliveira et al.)

Red-list status:

Least concern, overall, though in some places, including Mexico and the United States, ocelots are rare enough to be considered Vulnerable or Endangered. See the IUCN assessment and the Cat Specialist Group’s ocelot page for the most current details.

Featured image: Jitze Couperus, CC BY 2.0.


Cat Specialist Group. n. d. Ocelot. http://www.catsg.org/index.php?id=88 Last accessed May 17, 2019.

Ewer, R. F. 1973. The carnivores. The World Naturalist, ed. Carrington, R. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

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.; Van Valkenburgh, B.; and Yamaguchi, N. 2010. Felid form and function, in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, ed. Macdonald, D. W., and Loveridge, A. J., 83-106. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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

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.

Murray, J. L., and Gardner, G. L. 1997. Leopardus pardalis. Mammalian Species, (548): 1-10.

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.

de Oliveira, T. G., Tortato, M. A., Silveira, L., Kasper, C. B., Mazim, F. D., Lucherini, M., … & Sunquist, M. (2010). Ocelot ecology and its effect on the small-felid guild in the lowland neotropics. Biology and conservation of wild felids, 559-580.

Turner, A., and M. Antón. 1997. The Big Cats and Their Fossil Relatives: An Illustrated Guide to Their Evolution and Natural History. New York: Columbia University Press.

Werdelin, L. 1983. Small pleistocene felines of North America. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 5(3): 194-210.

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. Ocelot. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ocelot Last accessed May 17, 2019.

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