In this lightly edited last excerpt from the cat-family books (which are on sale through April 5th), I describe one of the rarest and most endangered cats in the world!
Until recently, the most common names for this small cat of the High Andes were gato andino (Spanish for “Andean cat”) and titi — a title given by Bolivian natives who include it and the Pampas cat in religious festivals.
For most of the time after Western science discovered them in the 1860s, Andean cats (sometimes known as Andean mountain cats) weren’t well known — all there was to study were a few museum specimens and some skulls.
Much more information about them has come to light since the late 20th century, especially after the Alianza Gato Andino formed in 1999 and after camera trapping became widespread.
While some unsettled issues remain (Kitchener et al.; Werdelin et al.), the cat’s scientific name at present is Leopardus jacobita.
Those who know a little Latin might feel that should be “jacobitus” (to match the gender ending of Leopardus). But the “a” is correct — this species name honors Jacobita Mantegazza, the Argentinian-born wife of Italian traveler and scientist Paolo Mantegazza, who was the first European to notice Andean cats.
Ocelot, according to genetic testing reported in 2006. Up until then, experts had classified Andean cats as a unique genus called Oreailurus, since they couldn’t decide if the cats were related to jaguars (Panthera), mountain lions (Puma), or the ocelot group.
- The most endangered cat in the Americas. The estimated total population is less than 3,000 (only about 1,400 of them adults), with a patchy distribution across the Andes and adjacent high country. (Cat Specialist Group) Estimates are very uncertain, though. The Andean cat lives in remote places and field studies of this tiny feline are very difficult. (Reppucci et al; Villalba et al., 2016) Complicating its Red-List status is the Andean cat’s very low balance in the “genetic bank” — not a good thing if an emergency like disease or natural disaster arises that requires some genomic diversity in a species for it to escape extinction. (Cossios et al.; Simpson)
- One of the rarest and least known cats in the world. While molecular markers show that Andean cats belong to the ocelot lineage, their precise position is debatable. Taxonomists also aren’t certain whether there are subspecies or perhaps even more than one species of Andean cat! (Cossios et al.; Kitchener et al.; Werdelin et al.)
- Unlike many of their relatives, Andean cats are habitat specialists, living in dry, sparsely vegetated, rocky terrain with extreme weather changes. This video shows just how well adapted these little predators are to such environments:
This information is from the Cat Specialist Group, except where noted.
- Weight: 9 to 13 pounds.
- Height at the shoulder: 14 inches. (Wikipedia)
- Body length: 22 to 30 inches.
- Tail length: 16 to 19 inches. Yes, this is an unusually long tail for such a small cat. Yensen and Seymour speculate that it’s used for balance while chasing prey among the rocks, but according to Marino et al., there could be other explanations.
- Coat: The fur is over an inch thick and reportedly rather lynx-like when you run your hand over a pelt. The background color is ash-gray. It’s covered with brownish-yellow to dark gray or black splotches that align vertically on either side but aren’t true stripes. These colors often are light at first and darken with age. The underfur is white with dark spots and bars. Each leg has linear markings that don’t quite connect up into rings, while the fluffy tail definitely has dark brown to black rings, anywhere from 6 to 9 of them. In some Andean cats, the tip of the tail is whitish. (Cat Specialist Group; Villalba et al., 2016; Yensen and Seymour)
- Litter size: The only sightings are of one kitten accompanying its mom.
Where found in the wild:
Look for these small felines in the treeless High Andes of southern Peru, southwestern Bolivia, northeastern Chile, and northern Argentina. (Sunquist and Sunquist) They’re also found in the Andean foothills of central Argentina and in northern Patagonia. (Cat Specialist Group)
The Andean cat is adorable but looks can be deceiving. It is also rugged enough to thrive on some of the harshest terrain on Earth.
- Range of environments: For a long time, zoologists thought that this cat only lived at elevations of 12,000 feet or higher. However, it has recently been recorded at lower elevations in central Argentina, as well as on the northern Patagonia steppes down to roughly 2,100 feet above sea level. Whether in high country or on semi-arid steppe, Andean cats prefer a mixed terrain of valleys and steep rocky walls. They also have been observed in scrublands and even in Chile’s Atacama desert region. (Cat Specialist Group; Villalba et al., 2016)
- Prey base: As shown in this video, there is a surprising amount of life up above timberline in the Andes! Those creatures that look like rabbits are vizcachas, relatives of the mountain chinchilla which used to be the main menu item for Andean cats. Chinchillas were locally extirpated by overhunting, and now the cats depend on vizcachas, though they will take other small animals, too.
- Example of guild: Carnivores in the high Andes include pumas, culpeo foxes, and Pampas cats, in addition to Andean cats. As the biggest cat here, pumas, of course, do what they want; what wildlife biologists are trying to work out how those smaller predators share resources. Pampas cats and Andean cats look so much alike that even experts have trouble telling them apart (per the Cat Specialist Group, you have to look for the Andean cat’s black nose). These two little felines go after the same sized prey, too. However, the Andean cat apparently specializes in vizcachas while the Pampas cat takes a broader diet. There may be other, more complex interactions among foxes, Pampas cats, and Andean cats, too. (Lucherini et al.; Marino et al.)
The overall status of Andean cats changed from Vulnerable to Endangered in 2002 after field surveys revealed smaller, more disconnected populations. The nature and extent of threats to these cute little rock climbers aren’t well understood yet. (Marino et al.)
More details are available on the Cat Specialist Group’s Andean cat page and in the IUCN online assessment.
Featured image: Andean cat in a rehab center (Image: GlennLB photography /Shutterstock)
Cat Specialist Group. 2019. Andean cat. http://www.catsg.org/index.php?id=86 Last accessed September 15, 2019.
Cornalia, E. 1865. Descrizione di una nuova specie del genere Felis, Felis jacobita (Corn.) (Vol. 1, No. 1). Coi tipi di G. Bernardoni. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=_3U7AQAAMAAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PA1&dq=cornalia,+descrizione+di+una+nuova+specie+del+genere:+felis&ots=7M1EwZch7G&sig=GhNcVZEWP9xPVKpGPtNmK-rVcm8#v=onepage&q&f=false (relevant text on Jacobita Mantegazza, page 7, via Google Translate)
Cossíos, E. D.; Walker, R. S.; Lucherini, M.; Ruiz-García, M.; and Angers, B. 2012. Population structure and conservation of a high-altitude specialist, the Andean cat Leopardus jacobita. Endangered Species Research, 16(3): 283-294.
Ewer, R. F. 1973. The carnivores. The World Naturalist, ed. Carrington, R. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
Johnson, W. E.; Culver, M.; Iriarte, J. A.; Eizirik, E.; and others. 1998. Tracking the evolution of the elusive Andean mountain cat (Oreailurus jacobita from mitochondrial DNA. Journal of Heredity, 89(3): 227-232.
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
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. 2010. 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.
Mouchard, A. 2019. ETIMOLOGÍA de los NOMBRES CIENTÍFICOS de los MAMÍFEROS de ARGENTINA. University of Maimonides, Felix de Azara National History Foundation. http://www.fundacionazara.org.ar/img/libros/etimologia-de-mamiferos.pdf
Natural History Review: A Quarterly Journal of Biological Science: 1865, page 298. https://books.google.com/books?id=Ap05AAAAcAAJ&pg=PA298&lpg=PA298&dq=cornalia,+mantegazza,+jacobita&source=bl&ots=nH3OuntcgG&sig=ACfU3U29IYQJ0_wBmK22vN2FYZvLJl5koQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjKyr6n3p3oAhWjmHIEHWvmD-YQ6AEwBHoECAMQAQ#v=onepage&q=cornalia%2C%20mantegazza%2C%20jacobita&f=false
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.
Reppucci, J.; Gardner, B.; and Lucherini, M. 2011. Estimating detection and density of the Andean cat in the high Andes. Journal of Mammalogy, 92(1): 140-147.
Simpson, G. G. 1944. Tempo and Mode in Evolution. New York: Columbia University Press.
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
Taylor, P. M., and Marino, C. 2019. PAOLO MANTEGAZZA’S VISION: The Science of Man behind the World’s First Museum of Anthropology (Florence, Italy, 1869). https://doi.org/10.1111/muan.12209
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.
Villalba, L.; Lucherini, M.; Walker, S.; Lagos, N.; and others. 2016. Leopardus jacobita. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T15452A50657407. https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/15452/50657407 Last accessed September 15, 2019.
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. Andean mountain cat. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andean_mountain_cat Last accessed September 15, 2019.
Yensen, E., and Seymour, K. L. 2000. Oreailurus jacobita. Mammalian Species, 2000(644): 1-6.