Ocelot (Leopardus pardalis), known as dwarf leopard, is a very beautiful creature. It is similar to a domestic cat, but its fur resembles that of a clouded leopard or jaguar. It is distributed extensively over South America including Mexico, islands of Trinidad and Margarita and Central America. Classified as “vulnerable” endangered species from 1972 until 1996, and is now rated “least concern” by the 2008 IUCN Red List, its presence has been reported as far north as Texas. North of Mexico, it is found regularly only in the extreme southern part of Texas, although there are rare sightings in southern Arizona. The pelt of the cat was once regarded as very valuable. As a result, hundreds of thousands of these handsome cats were once killed for their fur.
The name ocelot comes from the Nahuatl word ?c?e l?tl, which usually refers to jaguar (Panthera onca) rather than the ocelot.
Largest of all the members of genus Leopardus, it ranges from 65 to 100 centimeters in length, excluding the 26 to 45 centimeters long tail. It weighs 8 to 18 kilograms, although much larger animals have infrequently been recorded, making it the biggest of by and large graceful Leopardus cats. While similar in appearance to the oncilla and margay cats that are found in the same region, ocelots have relatively large front paws, rounded ears, sleek and smooth fur.
The pattern of the coat in this animal can vary. It can be anything from cream to reddish-brown and sometimes grayish with black rosettes. In many ocelots, some of the spots, particularly on the back, merge together to form asymmetrical curved stripes or bands. Its fur is short, and paler than the rest of the coat beneath. There are also single white spots, called ocelli, on the backs of the ears. Two black stripes line both sides of the face, and the long tail is banded by black.
Nocturnal and very territorial creature
Like most felines, ocelots are mostly nocturnal, very territorial and solitary creatures, generally meeting only to mate. Their territorial nature often leads to fierce fighting, which sometimes end even in death. Being nocturnal they prefer to rest in trees or other dense foliage during the day. They very occasionally share their spot with other ocelots of the same sex.
Territories occupied by males may spread over from 3.5 to 46 sq km, while females have smaller and non-overlapping territories ranging from 0.8 to 15 sq km. In typical feline manner they mark their territories using urine sprays and by leaving feces at prominent locations, sometimes favoring particular latrine sites.
They hunt over a range of about 20 sq km, and usually take small animals, which include mammals, fish, small reptiles like lizards and turtles, frogs, birds and marine animals like crabs. Mammals like rodents, opossums and rabbits form largest part of their diet. Although ocelots have very good day and night vision they also follow and find their prey via their odor trails, according to the recent studies.
Reproduction and life cycle
Breeding in Ocelots takes place only once every other year, however females may mate again shortly after losing their litter. Mating can take place at any time of the year. Estrus in these cats lasts from seven to ten days. After the mating is successful female search for a safer and secured place preferably in a cave in a rocky bluff, a dense (preferably thorny) thicket, or a hollow tree. After the gestation period of 79 to 82 days, usually single blind and helpless kitten, weighing around 250 grams, is born with a thin covering of hair. Eyes are opened after 15-18 days. Sometimes, litters of two or three kittens also occur, but they are not common.
Growth in ocelot kittens is quite slow compared to other smaller cats. By the time they are three months old, they begin to leave the den, but they still remain with their mother for up to two years, before dispersing to establish their own territory. In captivity they live up to 20 years.
Birth of single kitten, one of the longest gestations, slow growth of kittens among the small felids, high infant mortality and comparative infrequency of breeding makes the cat particularly susceptible to population loss.
Habitat and distribution
Ocelots prefer areas with comparatively dense vegetation, though they may infrequently hunt in more open areas at night. They usually inhabit thorn forests, mangrove swamps and savanna, tropical forest and altitudes ranging up to 1,200 meters (3,900 ft). They are distributed widely over Central and South America (including the islands of Margarita and Trinidad) and Mexico. Countries where ocelots are found include U.S, Argentina, Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, Bolivia, El Salvador, Guyana, Colombia, Belize, Costa Rica, Honduras, Ecuador, Peru, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Suriname, Panama and Paraguay. It is believed to be extinct in Uruguay.
The ocelot was once commonly found in the chaparral thickets of the Gulf Coast of south and eastern Texas, and could be found in Arizona, Louisiana, and Arkansas. Today it is found only in small areas of dense thicket in South Texas and is rarely sighted in Arizona. Two important sightings have been reported in recent years from Arizona — in the mountains of Cochise County an ocelot was photographed on 7th November 2009, which was the first verifiable evidence of the feline’s presence in the state. The Arizona Game and Fish Department confirmed in February 2011 about the sighting of another ocelot in the Huachuca Mountains.
According to experts, in south Texas the remnant population has declined from 80-120 individuals in 1995 to less than 50 in recent years. Half of the deaths occurred due to automobile accidents. Historical records show that ocelots once existed on the island of Tobago, but they have long been extirpated. In Trinidad, poaching and habitat fragmentation are the major threats to the existence of the remaining populations of the species. No pragmatic studies have been done to reliably estimate the population status of ocelots on the island.
The currently recognized subspecies of ocelot are as follows :-
- Leopardus pardalis melanurus — found in Trinidad, Venezuela, Guyana.
- Leopardus pardalis steinbachi — found in Bolivia.
- Leopardus pardalis aequatorialis — found in northern Andes and Central America.
- Leopardus pardalis pseudopardalis — found in Colombia.
- Leopardus pardalis pardalis — found in the Amazon Rainforests.
- Leopardus pardalis mitis — found in Paraguay and Argentina.
- Leopardus pardalis puseaus — found in Ecuador.
- Leopardus pardalis albescens — found in the eastern Mexico and southern Texas.
- Leopardus pardalis sonoriensis — found in the northwestern Mexico and southern Arizona.
- Leopardus pardalis nelsoni — found in the southwestern Mexico.
It is because of the beauty of the pelt, ocelot is probably not only the best known of the South American cats, it is also the most sought after for fur and pet trade. In 1980s, prices of coats made from ocelot fur reached as high as 40,000 dollars and the live animal as pet sold for 800 dollars. According to an estimate there was a time when more than 200,000 ocelots used to be killed annually for its fur in the range countries.
Keeping ocelots as pets has not been associated only with lesser known people, but some very famous personalities were also known to have especial liking for the animal. For instance, Salvador Dalí, a prominent Spanish Catalan surrealist painter, often traveled with his pet ocelot Babou. He even brought it aboard the luxury ocean liner SS France. Another personality, Gram Parsons, an American singer, songwriter, guitarist, and pianist, kept an ocelot in his family home in the city of Winter Haven, in Florida during his teens, in the mid-1960s.
There are relics, which show that the Moche people, who lived in ancient Peru, worshipped animals and often depicted the ocelot in their art.