The Margay (Leopardus wiedii) is among the most beautiful and mysterious of the spotted cat. It is solitary and nocturnal cat of Americas that is more strongly associated with the rainforests than any other Neotropical cat. It is very similar to the larger ocelot in appearance, although the head is a little shorter, the eyes larger, and the tail and legs longer.
It can rotate its ankles 180 degrees
The cat’s scientific name is derived from the name of Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied. It is often confused with its near relatives the Oncilla and Ocelot as their coats are very similarly patterned. Like the other two cats Margay’s coat too has tawny background marked with several rows of dark brown or black rosettes and longitudinal streaks. The center of each spot or rosette is slightly paler, but still darker than the ground color of the fur. Tail is quite long, averaging 70 per cent of its head and body length, with numerous dark bands and a black tip. It is used as a counterweight to aid in balance. Cat’s fur is thick and plush and the eyes are dark brown and extremely large that help in its nighttime vision. Backs of large, rounded ears are black with rounded white markings in the center. The belly, chest, chin, throat and insides of the legs are paler, ranging from buff to white. They have two dark cheek stripes on each side of the face.
Margay is a much more expert climber than its relatives. Due to this ability it is sometimes called the tree ocelot. While ocelots usually pursue their prey on the ground, margays may spend their entire life in the trees, leaping after and chasing birds and monkeys through the treetops. In fact, it is one of only two cat species that have ankle flexibility necessary to climb head-first down trees (the other being the clouded leopard although the less studied marbled cat may also have this ability). Margays are remarkably agile and are the only cat to have the ability to rotate their ankles 1800. They are exceedingly quick and even during a fall can grab hold of branches equally well with their one front or hind paws and climb up again. They are able to jump up to 12 feet (3.7 m) horizontally. Broad soft feet provide them a good platform for jumping and an effective gripping surface for climbing. They have been observed hanging from branches with only one foot.
Margay’s exceptionally long and heavy tail plays important role in balancing the body especially when they move from one tree to another. In some areas they are so well adapted to arboreal life that they sleep, hunt and even have their young in trees. While descending, they simply walk slowly head first down the tree trunk, unlike most other cats who either rush down, jump or descend hind feet first.
If we look at the size, Margays are right in between the Oncilla and the Ocelots. They weigh from 2.5 to 4 kilos, with a body length of 48 to 79 cm, and 33 to 51 cm long tail. Unlike most other cats, the female possesses only two teats.
Distribution and habitat
Fossil evidence of margays or margay-like cats, dating to the Pleistocene period, has been found in Florida and Georgia, which suggest that they had a wider distribution in the past. The last record of the cat from Texas was from 1852.
Today it is found from southern Mexico, through Central America and in northern South America east of the Andes. Margays are associated with dense forest habitat, which include evergreen, deciduous and the high cloud forests. They have been sporadically seen in shady cocoa or coffee plantations and riverine forests. Mexico is the northernmost limit of their distribution, which ranges down through Central and South America to northern Argentina.
These cats are intolerant to changed habitat and usually do not cross open areas where there is no cover. They also keep away from landscapes that have been transformed, except for dense plantations of Eucalyptus, coffee, cocoa, and pine. A study conducted in northern Argentina has found lower Margay densities in protected areas and parks, possibly because of high Ocelot population.
A study in Belize has found the home ranges of males extend to about 11 sq km. Camera traps indicate a population of less than five individuals per 100 sq km, with extremes of twenty cats per 100 sq km. A Brazilian radio telemetry study, maintained over 18 months, found home ranges to be 16 sq km. Researchers in the El Cielo Biosphere Reserve in northeastern Mexico, after 2.5 months of intensive field work, found high Margay abundance. Four males in the study were found to have average home ranges of 4 sq km, which overlapped by 29 per cent. Each of these cat maintained a core area, which was about half the size of their home range. Experts believe that the high number of Margays in the study area may be due to the absence of Ocelots from the habitat. A camera trap study in central Mexico estimated Margay density at 12 cats per 100 sq km.
Margays are primarily nocturnal, which is evident from their huge eyes, and are naturally rare in their environment. Consequently information on their lives in the wild is very limited. Most of their dietary studies have been based on stomach contents and fecal analysis. On the basis of the above facts it is believed that most of their hunting is done above ground.
A report published in 2006 about a margay observed chasing squirrels in its natural environment confirmed that these cats are able to hunt their prey entirely in trees. A study conducted in the Atlantic Rainforests of Brazil confirmed that the birds with 55 per cent were the most consumed prey species followed by reptiles, which constituted 41 per cent of their diet. In addition to this bird eggs, small arboreal mammals, such as squirrels, big-eared climbing rats, capuchins, marmosets, three-toed sloths, opossums, tree frogs and even fruits are included in the diet. Terrestrial diet consists of various rats, cavies and porcupines. It may also eat grass and other vegetation, most likely to help digestion.
Their spectacular agility enables them to capture small primates. There has been one report of a margay using auditory mimicry to try to lure one of its preys. In 2005 a margay was observed in the Amazon rainforest of Brazil imitating the call of a baby pied tamarin (Saguinus bicolor) while in the presence of a group of adult tamarins. Though the high-pitched squeal was a “poor imitation” of a baby, it was similar enough to attract curious adult tamarin feeding nearby to come closer and investigate. While the margay was not successful in catching any monkey, this was the first scientifically documented case of a cat employing this type of mimicry.
Margays are nocturnal in behavior, but in some areas they have also been found hunting during the day. Since they prefer arboreal life they spend most of their time in trees, but also travel across the ground, particularly while moving between hunting areas. During the day when they are not active, they rest in comparatively unapproachable branches or clumps of lianas.
Like most cats, they are also solitary in nature and usually come together for mating. They are thinly distributed even in their habitat and occupy comparatively large home ranges of 11 to 16 sq km. Like most cats they too scent mark their territory by spraying urine and leave scratch marks on the ground or on the tree branches. Their vocalization seems to be of short range; they do not call each other over long distances.
Cat with only one pair of mammary glands
In mating season males respond to females’ long, moaning calls by making trilling sounds or yelping and also by rapidly shaking their heads from side to side, a behavior not seen in any other cat species. Females come into estrus for four to ten days over a cycle of 30 to 36 days. This is the time when they try to attract males by making moaning calls. Copulation takes place primarily in trees and lasts about a minute. It occurs several times while the female is in heat.
Gestation period lasts for 76–85 days. Usually one blind kitten (rarely two), weighing 85 to 170 grams, is born once a year, between March and June. Unlike other wild cat species Margays have only one pair of mammary glands and can ovulate spontaneously. Kitten’s weight at birth is comparatively on the higher side for a small cat, and is most likely related to the long gestation period. The young, which are darker than the adults and have uniform dark spots and dark grey paws, open their eyes when they are around two weeks old and begin to take solid food at seven to eight weeks.
Margays attain sexual maturity between the age of twelve to eighteen months, however, captive females reach sexual maturity around 6-10 months, but they may not reproduce for several months after that. They have been reported to live up to twenty-four years in captivity. Infant mortality in these cats is up to 50 per cent. Coupled with the problems they have breeding in captivity, makes the prospect of increasing the population very difficult.
Following are the currently recognized subspecies:
- Leopardus wiedii cooperi — northern Mexico.
- Leopardus wiedii glauculus — central Mexico
- Leopardus wiedii oaxacensis — southern Mexico.
- Leopardus wiedii wiedii — eastern and central Brazil, northern Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay.
- Leopardus wiedii amazonicus — inner parts of Peru, Venezuela, Colombia and western Brazil.
- Leopardus wiedii boliviae — Bolivia – also known as the “ocelittle”
- Leopardus wiedii yucatanicus — Yucatan
- Leopardus wiedii nicaraguae — Honduras, Costa Rica and Nicaragua.
- Leopardus wiedii pirrensis—Peru, Panama, Ecuador and Colombia.
- Leopardus wiedii salvinius—El Salvador, Chiapas and Guatemala.
Threats and Conservation
They are hunted mainly for their fur, which has resulted in a huge population decline – around 14,000 cats are killed in a year. This number is believed to be greatly underestimated as it was seldom verified which spotted cat the pelts originated from. Another unfortunate aspect is that in some areas illegal hunting for domestic markets or underground fur trade still poses a problem for this little cat. Its greatest threat at present is habitat loss. In addition to this Margay’s inability to produce large litters (or litters with multiple births) combined with the fact that they reproduce only once every two years and the kitten mortality rate is about 50 per cent, their chances of survival, both in the wild and in captivity, is quite grim.
In 1991, it was found that the Margay was the most common pelt in the southern Mexico trade, despite its protected status. Although it was once believed to be vulnerable to extinction, the IUCN now lists it as “Near Threatened”.