About the size of a domestic cat, Geoffroy’s cat (Leopardus geoffroyi) is one of the most widespread wild cat found in the open areas of southern and central regions of South America. Among the little known, small spotted cats of the world, it is relatively common in many areas, however, it is considered to be Near Threatened by the IUCN because of concern over land-use changes in the regions where it occurs. The cat is named after the 19th century French zoologist Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (1772–1844). In the early 19th century he traveled to South America and there he studied the feline.
They can stand up on their hind legs
About the size of domestic cat, Geoffroy’s cats are unusual among cats, as they have been observed to stand up on their hind legs to scan the area around them, using their tail as a support. This posture is common in meerkats, prairie dogs and weasels, but not generally in the other members of cat family.
Averaging 60 cm in length, with a relatively short, 30 cm long tail, they weigh 2 to 5 kilos, though specimens weighing up to 7.8 kilos have also been reported. Males are larger than the females. Individuals found in the southern part of their range are generally larger than their relatives in the northern areas.
Their fur ranges from brilliant ochre in the northern areas, to silvery grey in the south, with intermediate shades in between. Numerous small, round, black spots of nearly equal size are present on the body almost at equal distance from one another and form a black ‘necklace’ on the chest, but the background colour differs from region to region. In south the coat is grayish, while in the north, a brownish-yellow coat is very common.
Fur on the underbelly is paler, being cream-coloured or even white and also marked with solid spots. There are several black streaks on the crown and neck and two on each cheek. The legs are fairly stout with dark bands on the upper portion with spots extending down to the toes. The black-tipped tail, which is about the half of the head-body length, has several dark bands.
Ears are large and rounded with black on the outside and flagged with white spots (ocelli). Irises are deep golden coloured to greenish-grey. Melanistic specimen are common both in the captivity and in the forested and wetland areas.
Five subspecies are there with considerable variation in coat colour and size. Largest are found in the southern parts of their range and have a longer, paler coat. Individuals found in the north up into Paraguay are smaller and darker. Cats found in northern Argentina were once believed to be a separate species because of their unclear spottings and called ‘salt desert cats’. In some regions these cats are often confused with related species, the Pampas Cat (Leopardus colocolo) and the Kodkod (Leopardus guigna).
Genetic studies have revealed that Geoffroy’s cat is the closest relative of kodkod. At times it has been placed in the separate genus Oncifelis, together with the kodkod and colocolo, but now it is commonly placed in Leopardus.
Five subspecies have been identified on the basis of geographic disbursement:
- Leopardus geoffroyi geoffroyi— found in Central Argentina
- Leopardus geoffroyi euxantha— found in Northern Argentina, Western Bolivia
- Leopardus geoffroyi leucobapta— found in Patagonia
- Leopardus geoffroyi paraguae— found in Paraguay, Southeastern Brazil, Uruguay, Northern Argentina
- Leopardus geoffroyi salinarum— found in Northwestern and Central Argentina
Distribution and ecology
Most of the range of Geoffroy’s cat is semi-arid, but it prefer areas with dense vegetation. They are found from sea level to the elevation of 3,300 (10,800 ft) metres in Brazil, Paraguay, Bolivia and Argentina and also in the foothills of Patagonian Andes, but not in the conifer forests where they are substituted by the Kodkod.
They prefer open woodland or scrubland habitats with plenty of cover, but are also found in the marsh grasslands, pampas grasslands, and Gran Chaco landscape and the alpine salt desert of northwest Argentina. Generally known as ‘gato de montes’ (meaning cat of the mountains) by the locals, these cats are good tree climbers, but they are rarely seen on trees, spend most of their time on the ground. They are such a good swimmers that the locals call them ‘fishing cats’. They readily enter water. In a recorded case in Chile, one female was observed crossing a 30 metre wide fast-flowing river at least 20 times.
The IUCN has listed it as “Near Threatened” because of the worry over habitat conversion in many countries in the cat’s range. The species appears to be abundant in central regions, which also includes Bolivia, where it is the second most widespread cat after the ocelot, it is considered to be endangered in regions such as southern Chile
In southern parts of Brazil, which is the northern-most part of the cat’s range, its populations overlap with that of Oncilla (Leopardus tigrinus). Both these cats are morphologically similar in body proportions and appearance. Researchers have found a small number of hybrids between the two species.
Like many cats, Geoffroy’s cat is also a solitary hunter and is at the top of the food chain in its range. It comes in contact with others of its species only during the mating season. Nocturnal in nature, its activities heighten in the middle of the night. It is an opportunistic predator feeding on whatever is available. In southern Chile, the introduced European hare is found to constitute 50 per cent of its diet, whereas in Argentina a study found that their diet was mainly rodents throughout the year. Other animals preyed upon are birds, small reptiles, fish occasionally insects and frogs. Females maintain territories ranging from 2 to 6 square km, while males have larger home ranges, reaching up to 12 square km. They also overlap those of one or more females.
Breeding season for Geoffroy’s cats starts around October and may stretch up to March. Female comes into estrus for about ten to twelve days, roughly a month apart. Mating during this period is brief and frequent. Pregnant females search out a well protected den between rocks or in dense shrub. Gestation period lasts for 72–78 days, with most births taking place between December and May. Litters may consist of one to four kittens, although one or two is more common.
At birth kittens weigh around 65 to 100 grams and are born blind. Their eyes open after ten to twenty days, but they grow slower than the domestic cat kittens. After six to seven weeks they start taking solid food. Although they become independent at the age of around eight months, but they attain sexual maturity around 18 months in the case of females, while the males reach sexual maturity at about two years. Longevity is up to 18 years.
Fur of Geoffroy’s cat is the second most commonly sold cat pelt in the international market after bobcat. Thus the fur trade has taken heavy toll on this feline. Statistics show that between 1960s and 1980s, Geoffroy’s cats were hunted to a large extent for their pelts, but after 1988 little trade took place and the species was upgraded to CITES Appendix I status in 1992. Besides the fur trade there are other causes also which are responsible for the decline of the cat. According to an estimate, in central Argentina, human related mortality made up 62 per cent of the known deaths, including vehicle collisions, poaching and killing by domestic dogs. These cats are also shot for meat and for preying on domestic poultry.
After the facts about the falling population of species came to light legislation was introduced in the late 1980s which made hunting and domestic trade illegal in Uruguay, Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia, Brazil and Chile. International trade in Cites Appendix I listed species is now prohibited, except for non-commercial purposes.
Despite the legislation, lack of standardization in managing and reporting harvest numbers in their various range countries make it complicated to evaluate the current effect on ongoing hunting. Another major threat is from rapid loss of crucial habitat due to deforestation.