Yes, huge tigers — members of the oldest feline lineage, Panthera — are cats, but they’re not native to the Americas.
Tiny tiger cats did evolve here — that doesn’t make them any easier to understand, though.
These little cuties even have the Cat Specialist Group puzzled!
The tiger cats (Leopardus tigrinus/Leopardus guttulus) are part of the ocelot lineage, one of the youngest of all cat lineages. They pose an exquisite genetic puzzle. They were recently acknowledged as two distinct species, given their genetic differentiation. However, it is likely that the current Central American subspecies, called Leopardus tigrinus oncilla, comprises a different species too. The Costa Rican population and the one of Central and Southern Brazil (now called Leopardus guttulus) have been isolated for approximately 3.7 million years. These two populations show a high level of divergence comparable to the one between species of the Leopardus genus and both populations have a low genetic diversity. To add more genetic oddity for the tiger cat species, there has been ancient historic hybridization between the pampas cat (L. colocola) and L. tigrinus, intense hybridisation with margays (L. wiedii) and ocelots (L. pardalis) in Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia and Argentina, and ongoing bi-directional hybridization between L. guttulus with 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!
All that hanky-panky is because cats are still radiating here (jargon alert).
To us, the American continents seem to have been around forever, but the land bridge that cats, canids, and many other North American animals and plants used to get to South America a few million years ago is actually a fairly new feature, in geologic terms.
Family Felidae is still expanding its horizons across South America — at least, when we don’t get in its way.
Here’s a video on the southern tiger cat:
It’s harder to find videos of the northern tiger cats. Here is one of a cute little cub in a rescue shelter:
And work continues on understanding the northern tiger cat(s):
This video was uploaded last month.
As often happens in humid forests, there are melanistic forms, too, including this Costa Rican oncilla:
A little lagniappe:
Meanwhile, indoors and far from the tropics — two domesticated African wildcats, one window, and four seasons:
Featured image: Martin Mecnarowski/Shutterstock