Each of these felines is a Pampas cat.
Why so many different looks?
Despite their name, Pampas cats live in more than one place. They’re actually amazingly flexible. And each look meets the cat’s camouflage needs for a particular setting.
To take the most extreme example, plain mousy colors (top left in the above image) blend well into South America’s grasslands, while a colorful, spotted coat (bottom left) is so suitable for stark High Andes landscapes that another small feline up there, the Andean cat, has it, too (insider tip from the Cat Specialist Group: to tell them apart, look for the Pampas cat’s pink nose).
There are almost as many common names for Pampas cats as there are looks.
Most widely used are:
- “Pajeros” — cats of the Andes eastern slopes and farther south, on lesser heights, to Patagonia.
- “Colocolo” — the cat’s name in mid-level forests in central Chile and on parts of the western Andes high steppe.
- “Pantanal cats” — those of the lowland woods and grassy areas of Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay (though not in rainforests).
Those locations are from Garcia-Perea. Other sources might see things differently. It is very hard to pin down information about the Pampas cat.
Modern science has tackled the challenge of classifying Pampas cats in several ways down through the years. Currently, this little kitty is known as Leopardus colocola.
Colocolo reportedly was a native leader who fought the conquistadors, so I’m not sure why the Cat Classification Task Force insists on an “a” here — it probably has something to do with the rules of taxonomy, per Kitchener et al.
Researchers say that Pampas cats have seven, somewhat differently structured genetic groups. It’s still unclear whether or not these are subspecies (pajeros and braccatus are often suggested for subspecies, along with colocolo/colocola). (Kitchener et al)
In fact, say these experts, Pampas cats might even be a whole complex of individual species!
Understanding what Pampas cats are and why they evolved this way is a high research priority today.
Pampas cats have other noteworthy points besides their variable appearance:
- While they occasionally live in forests, Pampas cats are the only small wild cat in South America’s lowlands that specializes in open habitats. (de Oliveira et al.)
- That said, Pampas cats also inhabit more kinds of habitats than any other South American cat, including the pampas of Uruguay and Argentina; thornscrub in Paraguay; open woods and grasslands in central Brazil; the Pantanal floodplain of Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay; closed-canopy forests in Chile; both slopes of the Andes; and the cold, semi-arid deserts of Patagonia.
- Hybridization, possibly extensive, with little tiger cats in central Brazil. (Culver et al.) Researchers report that the entire mitochondrial genome of some little tiger cats in Brazil has been replaced by that originating in the Pampas cat! (da Silva Santos et al.) As far as they know right now, this doesn’t seem to be going on so much with another small neighbor: Geoffroy’s cat.
This information is from the Cat Specialist Group, except where noted.
- Weight: 7 to 9 pounds.
- Height at the shoulder: 12 to 14 inches. (International Society for Endangered Cats)
- Body length: 17 to 31 inches
- Tail length: 9 to 13 inches.
- Coat: As above. The spotted forms generally have short, soft fur, while the coat of plain-colored Pampas cats is long and coarse. Some individuals have a sort of mane — this video shows a situation where such hair could be very useful:
Melanistic Pampas cats have been reported, but they are sometimes confused with house cats. (Macdonald et al.; Sunquist and Sunquist)
- Vocals: Similar to other small cats, including Fluffy. (Sunquist and Sunquist)
- Litter size: 1 to 3 kittens. This video shows Mom and a very young kitten:
Where found in the wild:
Look for Pampas cats in what’s called the “cone” of South America — the narrow part of the continent, pointing towards Antarctica — as well as northward on the west into the countries of Peru and Ecuador (possibly also a little way into Colombia), and on the east, up into northern Brazil.
- Range of environments: Pampas cats have been recorded at elevations of more than 16,000 feet, but they typically stay at lower altitudes, leaving the heights to Andean cats. (Macdonald et al.) This video shows the high-elevation environment that Pampas cats have adapted to (as well as some incredible close-ups of curious cats):
The widest variety of Pampas cat habitats comes in the middle elevations of South America, ranging from some 200 feet above sea level in the Pantanal up to around 3,000 to 5,000 feet. For example, here are two Pampas cats in the open woodlands of an Argentine national park
In Patagonia, Pampas cats are very rare but have been seen in coastal regions.
- Prey base: Wherever they live, Pampas cats presumably take small prey, generally rodents and other mammals, as well as ground-dwelling birds. In Patagonia, they even raid penguin nests! However, researchers say that much more needs to be learned about how these little cats live in the wild.
- Example of guild: In the Andes, Pampas cats must deal with foxes, as well as pumas and Andean cats. At lower elevations, Pampas cats and Geoffroy’s cats have a very similar distribution, with little tiger cats present in parts of Brazil.
Near Threatened. For more details, see the IUCN’s assessment and the Cat Specialist Group’s Pampas cat page.
Featured image: Top left: ZooPro via Wikimedia, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Leopardus_pajeros_20101006.jpg#mw-jump-to-license , CC BY-SA 3.0. Bottom left: Mcelite via Wikimedia (Ukrainian), https://uk.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Файл:Pampas_Cat_in_Cincinnati_Zoo.jpg , CC BY-SA 3.0; Right: Prefeitura de Belo Horizonte, https://www.flickr.com/photos/portalpbh/8390337302 , public domain.
Cat Specialist Group. 2019. Pampas cat. http://www.catsg.org/index.php?id=87 Last accessed September 8, 2019.
Cossíos, D.; Lucherini, M.; Ruiz-García, M.; and Angers, B. 2009. Influence of ancient glacial periods on the Andean fauna: the case of the pampas cat (Leopardus colocolo). BMC Evolutionary Biology, 9(1): 68.
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.
El aMaule. 2020. 87 Years: Know Who the Chief Colocolo Was (Spanish). http://elamaule.cl/noticia/deporte/87anoscolocolo-conoce-quien-fue-el-cacique-colo-colo Last accessed May 10, 2020.
Espinosa, M.; Cepeda-Mercado, A. A.; Louit, C.; Meléndez, M.; and González-Maya, J. F. 2014. Pampas cat Leopardus colocolo in the Atacama desert: first records from Llanos del Challe, National Park, Chile. Boletín del Museo Nacional de Historia Natural, Chile, 63: 111-118.
Ewer, R. F. 1973. The carnivores. The World Naturalist, ed. Carrington, R. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
García-Perea, R. 1994. The Pampas cat group (genus Lynchailurus Severtzov, 1858)(Carnivora, Felidae): a systematic and biogeographic review. American Museum Novitates; No. 3096.
International Society for Endangered Cats. 2020. Pampas cats. https://wildcatconservation.org/wild-cats/south-america/pampas-cat/ Last accessed May 10, 2020
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.
Li, G.; Figueiró, H. V.; Eizirik, E.; and Murphy, W. J. 2019. Recombination-aware phylogenomics reveals the structured genomic landscape of hybridizing cat species. Molecular Biology and Evolution. https://academic.oup.com/mbe/advance-article-pdf/doi/10.1093/molbev/msz139/28824386/msz139.pdf
Lucherini, M.; Eizirik, E.; de Oliveira, T.; Pereira, J.; and Williams, R.S.R. 2016. Leopardus colocolo. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T15309A97204446. https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/15309/97204446
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.
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, eds. Macdonald, D. W., and Loveridge, A. J., 559-580. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Seehausen, O. 2004. Hybridization and adaptive radiation. Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 19(4): 198-207.
da Silva Santos, A.; Trigo, T. C.; de Oliveira, T. G.; Silveira, L.; and Eizirik, E. 2018. Phylogeographic analyses of the pampas cat (Leopardus colocola; Carnivora, Felidae) reveal a complex demographic history. Genetics and Molecular Biology, 41(1): 273-287.
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.
Wikipedia. 2019. Pampas cat. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pampas_cat Last accessed September 8, 2019.
___. 2020. Badge of Colocolo. ___. 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Badge_of_Colo-Colo Last accessed May 10, 2020.
___. 2020. Colocolo (tribal chief). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colocolo_(tribal_chief) Last accessed May 10, 2020.