JAGUARUNDI : Cat with a otter-like appearance

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Jaguarundi or eyra cat (Puma yagouaroundi  syn. Herpailurus yagouaroundi), is a wild cat of smaller size. Found in Central and South America, it was classified as ‘Least Concern’ (LC) by IUCN in 2002. This category is assigned to extant species or lower taxa that have been evaluated but do not qualify for any other category. As such they do not qualify as threatened or Near Threatened.

Taxonomy and evolution

Although jaguarundis are smaller cats, but they are closely related to the much bigger and heavier cougar, with a similar chromosome count and genetic structure. Both of them are genetically closer to the bigger felids. Their chromosome number is 38, just like the jaguar, while small felids only hold 36 chromosomes.

According to a genomic study of Felidae conducted in 2006, an ancestor of modern Felis, Leopardus, Prionailurus, Lynx and Puma lineages migrated about 8.0 to 8.5 million years ago across the Bering land bridge into the Americas . The lineages subsequently diverged in that order.

While both species are in the genus Puma, jaguarundi is sometimes classified under the genus Herpailurus. Until recently both cats were classified under the genus Felis. Studies have also indicated that the cougar and jaguarundi are next most close relatives of modern cheetah of western Asia and Africa, however, not all experts are unanimous on the relationship. Some researches indicate that the ancestors of cheetah diverged from the Puma lineage in the Americas and migrated back to Africa and Asia, while other researches claim that cheetahs diverged in the Old World itself. The outline of small feline migration to the Americas is thus unclear.

Characteristics

Jaguarundi may not look like a cat in the traditional sense and some people may say that it resembles an otter or weasel more than any cat. It has slender and elongated body (23 to 33 inches), 13 to 25 inches long “otter-like” tail, short legs and a small flattened head. Ears are short and rounded and coat is uniform in color with a few faint markings on the face and underside. They are one of the only felines to not have contrasting colors on the backs of their ears. It can be either foxy red to chestnut (red phase) or blackish to brownish-grey (grey phase). Interestingly offspring of both the phases can be born in the same litter. There was a time when the two color phases were considered to represent two different species — grey one called jaguarundi and the red one called eyra. Standing 10-14 inches at shoulder these cats weigh between 3.5 to 10 kg.

Map showing Jaguarundi area (attribution - Chermundy and the IUCN Red List)

Distribution and habitat

Found from southern Texas and coastal Mexico in the north, through Central and South America east of the Andes, and as far south as northern Argentina. Of all of the New World felines, jaguarundis are the most adaptable in their ability to occupy diverse environments. They prefer lowland brush areas, especially close to running water. They may include any habitat from dry thorn forest to wet grasslands. Their presence has also been reported from the mountainous areas as high as 3,200 m (10,500 ft). Occasionally they can also be seen in dense tropical areas.

While these cats are not native to the south-eastern United States, they have also been sighted in Florida. Their sightings have been reported from the region since early 20th  century. Florida jaguarundis are believed to be feral population, thought to have been introduced, but there is no record when this introduction took place. It is said that the animal was imported by a writer from its native land and released at various locations across the state.

Jaguarundis were reported to be quite easy to “tame” by early Central American natives, and were used to control rodents around villages.

As far as the sightings are concerned, the earliest one took place in 1907 and was followed by various additional sightings throughout the Florida Peninsula from the 1930s through the 1950s. Although no live or dead specimens have been found, still the sightings are considered credible by biologists. The first official report was released in 1942. Significantly fewer reliable sightings were reported thereafter. In 1977 W.T. Neill claimed the population of these cats had declined; however, sightings continued. There are also reports of jaguarundi sighting in the coastal area of Alabama, which can be an indicator of the Florida population migrating northward.

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Distribution of subspecies

  • Geoffroy’s jaguarundi (P. y. yagouaroundi) (Geoffroy, 1803) –(Guyana and the Amazon Rainforest)
  • Gulf Coast jaguarundi (P.y. cacomitli) (Berlandier, 1859) – (southern Texas and eastern Mexico)
  • Eyra cat (P. y. eyra) (G. Fischer, 1814) – (Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina)
  • Guatemalan jaguarundi (P. y. fossata) (Mearns, 1901) – (southern Mexico to Honduras)
  • Panamanian jaguarundi (P. y. panamensis) (Allen, 1904) – (Nicaragua to Ecuador)
  • Sinaloan jauguarundi (P. y. tolteca) (Thomas, 1898) – (western Mexico; unconfirmed sightings have been reported in Arizona and Sonora)
  • (P. y. armeghinoi) (Holmberg, 1898) – (western Argentina, far eastern Chile)
  • (P. y. melantho) (Thomas, 1914) – (Peru and Brazil)

Various names

Jaguarundi is also called gato colorado, gato moro, león brenero, onza, tigrillo, and leoncillo in some Spanish-speaking countries. In Portuguese language the cat is also called by the names of gato-mouriscoeirágato-preto, and maracajá-preto. The Brazilian Portuguese pronunciation of its common English and Portuguese name is IPA. Jaguarundi comes from Old Tupi yawaum’di.

Ecology and behavior

Jaguarundi with red colour phase (GFDL - 1.2)

Jaguarundis are usually active during the day rather than evenings or night and like many cats they are also comfortable in trees, but prefer to hunt on the ground. They are in habit of eating almost any small animal they can catch. Normally they prefer a mixture of rodents, birds and small reptiles. As they are more often than not found near running water, it is no wonder that they are excellent hunters of fish, which they catch with their front paws. They have also been found killing larger prey, such as opossums and rabbits.

They are, however, seen alone in their habitat, but they seem to be somewhat more gregarious than many other cats, willing to tolerate the close presence of other members of their species.

Like other cats they too have their home range which may vary from 7 to 100 square kilometers depending upon the prey availabilty and the local environment. Jaguarundis are shy and reclusive animals and avoid human presence. They mark their territory by urinating, leaving their faeces uncovered, head-rubbing and scratching the ground, tree-trunks and branches. They have an unusually wide range of vocalisation. Thirteen distinct calls have been documented, which include chattering sounds, purrs, whistles, yaps, and even a bird-like chirp.

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Reproduction

Jaguarundi with gray coat (attribution - Bodlina; GFDL - 1.2)

Scientists are not unanimous about the timing of the breeding season in jaguarundis. They have been found breeding throughout the year. Oestrus in these cats lasts three to five days. During this period females have been observed spending much of their time rolling onto their back and spraying urine periodically at various locations. During the gestation period, which lasts 70 to 75 days, females select a secure place, which can be a tree hollow or any other similar place and if suitable place is not found then the female on its own constructs a den in a dense thicket where one to four kittens are born.

New born kittens have spots on their undersides, which disappear as they grow older. By the time they are six weeks old they start taking solid food. Jaguarundis become sexually mature at about two years of age. There is no information about their longevity in the wild but they have lived up to 15 years in captivity.

Threats

Jaguarundis are not killed for their fur, but are declining in numbers mainly due to habitat loss and human encroachment. They are still caught by traps that were intended for commercially valuable species. These cats are notorious for raiding domestic poultry and have become nuisance animals and threatened by farmers because of it.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has also expressed the same concern about the cat’s presence especially in South Texas. IUCN considered it likely that no conservation units beyond the megareserves of the Amazon basin could sustain long-term viable populations. It is probably extinct in Texas. Its presence in Uruguay is uncertain.

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