Kodkod : Smallest cat in Americas

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Kodkod Cat (CC BY 3.0)

Known by the Araucanian Indian name Kodkod (Leopardus guigna) is called güiña by the local people. It is not only the smallest wild cat in the Americas, but also rivals the Black-footed cat (Felis nigripes) and Rusty-spotted cat (Prionailurus rubiginosus) as the smallest wild cat species in the world. It also has the smallest distribution, being found mainly in central and southern Chile and to a very small number in the adjoining areas of Argentina. Quite similar to Geoffroy’s cat in appearance kodkod was classified as Vulnerable by IUCN in 2002 as the total effective population size may be less than 10,000 mature individuals, with a declining trend due to persecution, habitat and prey base loss. In addition there is no sub-population having an effective population size larger than 1,000 mature breeding individuals.

Characteristics

Although they are similar to Geoffroy’s cat, but are smaller in size with a smaller head. Legs are short, but the foot pads are reasonably large with black soles. Adults weigh 2 to 2.5 kilos, with a body length of 35 to 50 cm, and a 15 to 20 cm long tail marked with 10-12 conspicuous black rings and a black tip. Tail is quite bushy, growing wider towards the tip. Shoulder height is about 25 cm.

The coat’s ground color ranges from light grey and grey brown to buff or dusky brown marked with small roundish black spots. The cat has a few narrow black bands on the neck and crown and pale underside. Head is small with distinct lines above the eyes and on the cheeks and a white area around the eyes. The ears are relatively large and rounded, the backs of which is black with a white spot, while the dark spots on the shoulders and neck almost merge to form a series of dotted streaks.

Melanistic kodkods with spotted black coats are quite common. There seems to be two distinct forms. The race found in central Chile is plain in colouration without any spots on their feet and are larger than the race found in the southern part of their range. Individuals occurring in the southern parts are more brightly coloured and have spots on their feet.

Kodkods share range with Geoffroy’s cat

Kodkods that share their range with Geoffroy’s cat, have the smallest distribution of any cat in the Americas. Strongly associated with mixed temperate rainforests of the southern Andean and coastal ranges, they occur primarily in Central and Southern Chile, particularly the Valdivian and Araucaria forests that are characterized by the presence of bamboo in the understory (plant life growing beneath the forest canopy). They range up to the treeline at 1,900 to 2,500 meters.

Marginal populations are also found in adjoining areas of Argentina where they have been recorded from the moist montane forests.

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Ecology and behavior

This cat remains active both during day and night, but prefers to venture in the open usually under the cover of darkness. During the day, it generally rests in dense vegetation, preferably along the streams with heavy cover, and in piles of dead gorse, a flowering plants. Kodkod males maintain exclusive territories spread over 1.1 to 2.5 sq km, while females have smaller ranges of just 0.5 to 0.7 sq km.

Kodkod range map (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Although kodkods are terrestrial predators, they are also excellent climbers and can easily climb trees. They usually take shelter in trees during the day or when pursued. Although they depend on forests and prefer areas of thick understory, but infrequently they use a variety of open scrub forests. Since they show no tolerance for changed habitats, they are not seen in the cleared forest areas. Some cover, like trees or shrub, is must for these little cats to survive.

Their diet consists mainly of rodents, birds and lizards. Bird species that constitute kodkod’s diet largely include domestic geese, Southern lapwing, Huet-huet, chicken, Austral Thrush and Chucao Tapaculo.

Reproduction

Not much is known about the sex life of Kodkod. After successful mating gestation period lasts about 72–78 days, after which one to three kittens are born. Kodkods have been known to live over 11 years in captivity, but they have not been studied properly even under the captive conditions. In the case of females, they take about two years to reach sexual maturity.

Cat or blood sucking vampire?

Kodkods were described by A. Philippi in the mid-nineteenth century as abundant in the area of central coastal Chile. There were melanistic individuals also in the population.

Locals consider these small cats as pests as the larger males frequently prey upon the domestic chicken and geese; however, there is no record of females taking domestic poultry. They usually feed on small rodents and insects. Research has revealed that about 81 per cent of the people consider these cats as ‘damaging’ or ‘very damaging’. They even consider them as blood sucking vampires. Reason for this belief is that the people have found two puncture marks on the neck of domestic poultry, which in fact were the mark of cats’ two canine teeth. In 1997 to 1998, two out of five radio-collared cats were killed on Chiloe Island while raiding chicken coops.

To remove this misconception local people were involved in the field research project so that they can be educated about the habits and behavior of the cat. This yielded good results in removing the misgivings. During the exercise people were shown live Kodkods and were educated about the feeding habits of the cat. After they were convinced that the cat feeds on mice and rats, people became their staunchest defenders.

While the cat’s small size has saved it from being targeted for fur trade, it is frequently caught in traps laid out for foxes and other such animals. The population status in the wild is unknown, but it’s very limited geographical range most likely means that the population is not very large.

Much of the cat’s southern range in Chile is relatively free from human disturbances, but in the central parts major threat to the cat’s existence is from logging of its temperate moist forest habitat, spread of agriculture and pine forest plantations.

Taxonomy

These cats were earlier considered a member of the genus Oncifelis that consisted of three small species indigenous to South America. Now all of them have been moved into the genus Leopardus. Along with the kodkod, the other two former members of Oncifelis were the colococo and Geoffroy’s cat.

Following two are the known subspecies of kodkod.

  • Leopardus guigna guigna found in Southern Chile and Argentina.
  • Leopardus guigna tigrillo found in Central  Chile.

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